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Author Archives: Mark Yarhouse

“Creative Fidelity”

Here is an excerpt from my new book (co-authored with Dr. Erica S. N. Tan) titled Sexuality & Sex Therapy: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal.In thesextherapytext chapter on Sexual Interest and Arousal Disorders, we have a closing reflection on integration. It’s here that we introduce the concept of “creative fidelity” by Lewis Smedes. It’s a concept I have long appreciated and just wanted to highlight:

For those who marry, we appreciate the concept of “creative fidelity” introduced by Lewis Smedes (1994, p. 145). Smedes points out that a married person’s obligation to be faithful should not be reduced to avoiding sexual behavior that detracts from the marriage; rather, there is a positive expression of fidelity that warrants our attention. Smedes develops this idea of creative fidelity as faithfulness to calling (the state of marriage), service, one’s partner (and their well-being), our own personal growth, and so on. On the matter of desire,

“A man or woman can be just too busy, too tired, too timid, too prudent, or too hemmed in with fear to be seriously tempted by an adulterous affair. But this same person can be a bore home, callous to the delicate needs of his partner. He or she may be too prudish to be an adventuresome lover, but too cowardly to be in hones communication and too busy to put himself out for anything more than a routine ritual of personal commitment. He/she may be able to claim that he/she never cheated; but he/she may not be able to claim that he/she was ever really honest. He/she may never have slipped outside the marriage; but he/she may never have tried to grow along with his/her partner into a deep, personal relationship of respect and regard within marriage. His/her brand of negative fidelity may be an excuse of letting the marriage fall by neglect into dreary conformity to habit and, with that, into a dull routine of depersonalized sex…. anyone who thinks that morality in marriage is fulfilled by avoiding an affair with a third party has short-circuited the personal dynamics of fidelity.” (pp. 146-147)

So discussions of sexual desire/interest/arousal should not be limited to a negative discussion about what is absent; it should also reference a positive discussion about what is possible. It should include a proactive posture toward one’s partner (for those who are married) in terms of “creative fidelity” toward the whole person and redemptive structure of marriage itself.

 

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A World Safe for Diversity

In our weekly time of study and discussion followed by prayer, we reflected on the following video by Os Guinness. The title of the talk is, “A World Safe for Diversity.” It is an argument for the importance of religious liberty. It’s going to take you a little while, so pour yourself a good cup of coffee and give it a listen.

Early on in the talk he makes the point about how the different revolutions (French and American) had different relationships with religion. This was a point I was making in a previous post, citing Doug Laycock, a religious liberty attorney at UVA. In that context I stated:

In part because religion does not have a positive cultural association in French history (as contrasted with the positive cultural associations in the U.S.), we see a very different contemporary relationship with organized religion in France. If Christians continue to engage in the culture wars as they presently do, will we be at risk of losing positive cultural associations and good will that have long been a part of our history?

I see this as an important consideration for how religious people engage what they see as an erosion of religious liberty.

As I understand Guinness, the argument that needs to be made is that religious liberty is not the freedom to discriminate (as it is often perceived) but as fundamentally the freedom of conscience–to live your life consistent with your conscience. I will come back to this in a moment.

“Civility is not niceness,” says Guinness. (I talk about “convicted civility” all of the time–drawing from Richard Mouw–so this got my attention.) Civility refers to the “virtue and duty that allows citizens in the same society to negotiate differences with others peacefully.” Civility is also not unity–that our niceness will get us to a “human unity” if we just talk it out long enough. Our differences are “ultimate and irreducible,” and Guinness provides examples from different religions. We don’t believe the same things.

When we treat civility as unity we then frequently move to exclude from the public square the dissenting voices. This amounts to essentially the use of coercion to silence speech.

As one person in our discussion group shared, the alternative is that different groups defend each others freedom to exist. “Neither tries to annihilate the other. Neither tries to disenfranchise the other.”

Should those interested in religious liberty make legal battles? Guinness is not against that, as I understand him, but there may be benefits to being more selective about those battles while recognizing that legal battles are not sufficient moving forward. Persuasion and education are critical.

Interestingly, cultural debates regarding the gay rights movement have taken center stage. There is some irony to be found here, as the freedom to make your case and to live your life consistent with your conscience made it possible to even have such a movement. What would be a true loss is if that freedom were eroded. The freedom that made such a movement possible. What is more important than legal battles around photography and cake baking is (for Guinness) engaging in persuasion and civics training as to why religious liberty matters–why freedom of conscience matters. Toward that end, those interested in freedom of conscience will defend the smallest minority groups and their right to exist while fundamentally disagreeing with them where there are genuine differences.

 
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Posted by on February 28, 2014 in Worldview Integration

 

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The Appeal and Motivation of Types of Congruence

I was providing a training for counselors recently, and at one point we were discussing the concept of congruence, which I was describing as an end goal in a counseling process I had helped co-develop with Warren Throckmorton (referred to as Sexual Identity Therapy). The thinking is that when you counsel someone who experiences a conflict between their sexual identity and their religious identity, you want to help them resolve that conflict; that resolution can be thought of as congruence.  The experience of congruence may look different for different people.

cropped-identity2.jpgWhen I think of congruence, I am thinking of helping a person live his/her life and form an identity in keeping with his/her beliefs and values. I came across the idea of congruence among gay Christians when I conducted a series of studies of sexual minority Christians. (“Sexual minority” in the mainstream LGBT literature refers to people who experience same-sex attraction whether or not they identify as LGBT or report same-sex behavior.) In any case, I was comparing those who integrated their attractions with a gay Christian identity and those Christians who dis-identified with a gay identity. If I were to translate this to the SF crowd, I would say that the gay Christian identity was closest to what we might describe as a Side A gay Christian. The group that dis-identified with a gay identity were either closer to what readers here would think of as Side B gay Christians (in terms of not viewing same-sex relationships as morally permissible) but without the “gay” identification, if that makes sense.

Our research group concluded that both groups achieved personal congruence. The one group achieved congruence as (“Side A”) gay and Christian by adjusting their beliefs and values so that they aligned with their behavior and identity as gay persons. They were part of a fellowship that affirmed them as gay Christians and celebrated gay as an expression of God’s creativity. (I saw these findings as comparable in some ways to the results Michele Wolkomir reported in her book, Be Not Deceived, where she reported that the shift for gay Christians was toward the valuing of tolerance in supporting a gay Christian identity.)

The other group achieved congruence by dis-identifying with a gay identity and the gay community, which was in keeping with their sexual ethic; instead, they aligned their behavior and identity with their conservative Christian beliefs and values. (This result, too, was in some ways comparable to but different from Wolkomir’s findings about ex-gays, as she found that they valued personal righteousness in a way that reflected their primary motivation for moving away from a gay identity.)

Completely independent of that research, I saw the concept of congruence discussed in the 2009 American Psychological Association task force report on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation. In my own work, I had not been explicitly naming different kinds of congruence. What I was doing was simply describing different maneuvers (that is, shifting beliefs/values or shifting behavior/identity; Wolkomir’s emphasis on tolerance or righteousness). But I had not thought that much about the motivation to do so or given a name to the various motivations that could be present.

460In any case, in the 2009 task force report, the task force recognized that when people who adhere to traditional faith commitments experience a tension with their sexual identity, they may prefer one type of congruence over another. Much of psychology is steeped in what they referred to as organismic congruence, which they defined as “living with a sense of wholeness in one’s experiential self” (APA, 2009, p 18).  I think of this as essentially recognizing one’s impulses as important data, in some cases as a reliable moral guide for making decisions about one’s life. Congruence is then achieved by making changes in beliefs and values that will align well with the impulses one experiences in one’s sensate self.

In contrast, the task force reported that telic congruence refers to “living consistently within one’s valuative goals” (APA, 2009, p. 18).  I think of this as essentially connecting life here to transcendent reality and purposes, and making decisions based on one’s ideals.

Many gay Christians who experience a tension between their same-sex sexuality and their Christian faith experience their sexual drives and desires as instructive for how they should best meet their needs for intimacy.  Other gay Christians who feel that same tension turn to sources of authority outside of their sensate self and choose to live in a way that corresponds with that ethic.

Where do Side B gay Christians fit into this discussion of congruence? I’ll invite them to chime in for themselves, but I would wonder if they wouldn’t find the telic congruence as more of a reflection of how they align their behavior to correspond with their beliefs and values as traditionally believing Christians. They don’t appear to me to be making a shift that is obviously a reflection of organismic congruence. Where does identity fit in? I imagine there is great variability among Side B gay Christians, but the identity piece is not found in denying a gay identity in the same way people did in the research I noted above; rather, identity seems more nuanced and multifaceted, framed in many ways in positive terms (by use of the word “gay” at least as an adjective).

Let me take this one step further. In the context of this training, we were discussing the appeal of both types of congruence. As we discussed organismic congruence, the draw that most everyone recognized is the role of impulses in decision-making. We reference our sensate self as we decide about when and how much to eat, about the importance of regular exercise, ample sleep, and so on. It’s not as though we want to distrust these impulses, although we might feel impulses that we need to curb in one way or another.

When we turn to sexual ethics, however, can we as readily turn to our impulses as reliable moral guides? As we extend the discussion to sexual impulses, how does the discussion change? Should it? You could imagine scenarios in which impulses may not provide particularly helpful guidance that should in all cases by followed.  In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis challenges the appeal to instincts: “Telling us to obey instinct is like telling us to obey ‘people.’ People say different things: so do instincts. Our instincts are at war.” I think of Christians I’ve met in counseling who will talk about God releasing them from their commitment to their spouse in order to pursue another person who they have fallen in love with. I think of men who have justified affairs because their wife was not as responsive to sexual intimacy as they wanted.

Other gay Christians who experience a tension between their same-sex sexuality and their Christian faith look to ideals they wish to live by. They see these as transcendent purposes that they trust will provide a way of living and an identity.

What is the appeal of telic congruence? Telic congruence can give a person a sense of peace or security or worth if they believe they are doing something or making choices that are tied to transcendent purposes and structures of meaning. While this may be part of the appeal, there may be potential dangers as well. We discussed whether a person could connect striving toward telic congruence as a reflection of their worth or believe failure to make sufficient strides as placing them at risk of salvation or something along those lines.

As the task force report observed, telic congruence may prioritize values, but it “can be aware of sexual stigma and respectful of sexual orientation.” Likewise, organismic congruence, while it prioritizes “self-awareness and identity,” it can “be congruent with and respectful of religion” (p. 18).

It was a thought-provoking discussion that introduces not just the value of personal congruence but the motivations and appeal of different types of congruence. Perhaps there are yet more ways to conceptualize congruence that can add to our discussion as well.

 
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Posted by on February 21, 2014 in Sexuality & Gender

 

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Developmental Trajectories among Gender Dysphoric Children

sextherapytextInterVarsity Press Academic and the Christian Association for Psychological Studies are set to publish a new book I wrote with Erica S. N. Tan titled, Sexuality & Sex Therapy: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal. I am hearing it will be out in April.

After four foundational chapters offering theological, sociocultural, biological, and clinical perspectives on sexuality, we discuss several sexual dysfunctions, the paraphilias, sexual addiction, and other clinical presentations. Here is an excerpt from the chapter on Gender Dysphoria.

What we are discussing is onset and course. Specifically, we are discussing a study of children who persist and desist in their experience of Gender Dysphoria:

Although there is relatively little research on gender dysphoria as compared to many other sexual concerns, there has been some preliminary research (Steensmaet et al., 2010) on possible developmental trajectories among those who persist (in their experience of gender dysphoria) and those who desist (or who do not continue to experience gender incongruence).

When these two groups are compared, it is interesting to note that there are apparent differences in underlying motives in cross-identification, as well as differences in responses to changes at puberty. In considering motives for cross-identification, one persister shared the following: “In childhood (and still), I had the feeling that I was born as a boy. I did not ‘want’ to be a girl. To myself I ‘was’ a boy, I felt insulted if people treated me as a girl. Of course I ‘knew’ I was a girl, but still, in my view I was not” (Steensmaet et al., 2010, p. 6). In contrast to this, a desister shared this: “I knew very well that I was a girl, but one who wished to be a boy. In childhood I liked the boys better, the girls were always niggling [petty, nagging]. I was tough and wanted to be as tough as the boys” (p. 6).

When the researchers looked at the different responses to puberty, they noted the strong reaction against these changes among those who persisted with their gender incongruence. One persister shared the following: “It was terrible, I constantly wanted to know whether I was already in puberty or not. … I really did not want to have breasts, I felt like, if they would grow, I would remove them myself. I absolutely did not want them!” (Steensmaet et al., 2010, p. 8).

Again, in contrast, a desister shared this: “Before puberty, I disliked the thought of getting breasts. I did not want them to grow. But when they actually started to grow, I was glad they did. I really loved looking like a girl, so I was glad my body became more feminine” (Steensmaet et al., 2010, p. 12).

Keep in mind that both groups engaged in some cross-identification at a young age, about 6 or 7 years old. However, Steensma et al (2010) reported that for those who desisted—whose gender dysphoria abated over time—that change occurred at between 10-13 years of age, whereas the gender dysphoria seemed to increase for those who were called persisters.

The persisiters would go on to disclose and make a plan for some kind of transition between the ages of 10-13 years old, while those who desisted tended to identify with their birth sex at age 13 and older.

Although I have provided clinical services and consultations in the area of gender dysphoria and have conducted research involving transgender Christians, I have not written that much about it. I enjoyed the opportunity to work on this chapter with Erica and to reflect further on gender identity and gender dysphoria from a Christian worldview.

 

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Signing a Letter to President Museveni

UgandaI was approached recently to sign a letter that was sent to the President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni.  Parliament recently passed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, and it would require people to turn in suspected homosexuals, and it listed 14-year prison sentences for people who engaged in same-sex behavior (for one offense; up to a life sentence for repeated offenses). Apparently President Museveni told a human rights group that he would not sign it if there was scientific evidence that those who are attracted to the same sex do not have a choice with regards to their same-sex sexuality. Hence the call for members from the scientific community to offer their thoughts on the research. Below is the letter written by Jack Drescher and Warren Throckmorton.

This was in some ways a no-brainer, while in other ways I had to take some time to think about it. The no-brainer was because I believe people do not choose to experience same-sex attractions. Most find themselves with their attractions at around the time of puberty. So that part was easy to agree to.

The time for reflection had to do with several citations of research in the letter that I thought were either incorrect or at least deserved some elaboration or clarification. But, at the end of the day, I decided to sign because I do not believe people choose to experience same-sex attraction, and that was what Museveni was reportedly open to discussing. In my opinion, that is not even the most helpful question to ask.

I am reminded of an 18-year-old I saw for a consultation a few years ago. After we were meeting for a while, I mentioned that I didn’t think he chose to be attracted to the same sex. He said, “Dr. Yarhouse, you’ve got to tell my parents; they think I chose this to make their lives difficult.” I said, “Of course, I don’t think you chose your attractions.” I added, “I do think you have choices to make, choices about behavior and identity.” He stopped me: “Dr. Yarhouse, don’t tell my parents that!” So often the wrong question is on the table: Do people choose to have a homosexual orientation? The better question is: What is volitional?

For the purposes of this letter and for people who are navigating these issues in Uganda, I would certainly say that people find themselves experiencing same-sex attraction. We may not fully understand why, and it is likely a combination of factors from both Nature and Nurture.

Letter to the President of Uganda,

Your Excellency Yoweri Museveni

We, the undersigned, are responding to President Museveni’s request for current and accurate scientific information about homosexuality.

The Causes of Homosexuality are Unknown

From a scientific perspective, the causes of homosexuality are unknown. What is known is that it is unlikely that there is one biological or genetic cause for homosexuality in all people. Some data suggest that genetic and hormonal factors during pre-natal development have some impact on sexual orientation, in different ways for different people. For example, homosexuality can be found at a significantly higher rate among identical twins when compared to non-identical twins or non-twin siblings. However the rate is not 100% among identical twins and the reasons for these differences remain unknown.

Despite early claims by some psychiatrists that faulty parenting causes homosexuality, there is little scientific evidence that parenting plays a role in directing a person’s sexual attractions. Neither is there much scientific support for theories that claim sexual abuse or recruitment causes homosexuality. The majority of people who were sexually abused did not later try homosexual behavior nor did they become homosexual.

Homosexuality is Not a Mental Illness

Starting in the 19th century, psychiatrists began classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder. However scientific sex research done in the middle of the 20th century began to change this view. For example, according to studies done in the 1950s, homosexual men showed no greater sign of psychiatric problems and seemed as well adjusted when compared to a comparable group of heterosexual men. In 1973, a review of newer scientific research led the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its Diagnostic Manual (DSM). In 1990, the World Health Organization concurred and also removed homosexuality from the mental disorder section of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD).

A Homosexual Orientation is Difficult, if Not Impossible, to Change

While mental health practitioners have tried to change a homosexual orientation since the 19th century, those results have been mostly unsuccessful. Sigmund Freud himself once said, “In general, to undertake to convert a fully developed homosexual into a heterosexual does not offer much more prospect of success than the reverse, except that for good practical reasons the latter is never attempted.”

In 2009, the American Psychological Association issued a report that studied the peer-reviewed scientific literature to date. That study found no scientific evidence that therapies designed to change sexual orientation are effective. While it is possible that some self-reports of change are true, science does not support the idea that sexuality is changeable for most people.

Homosexuality is Not the Same as Pedophilia

While homosexuality is no longer regarded as a mental disorder in the ICD, pedophilia or attraction to minors is still considered to be one. However, the available scientific research does not support the view that adult homosexuals primarily attracted to other adults pose a threat to minors any more than the threat posed by heterosexual adults to children. However, it is well documented that many who are opposed to any open expressions of homosexuality often raise the possible threat to children as a scare tactic.

Is Homosexuality Normal?

If by normal one means that homosexuality occurs in nature, then yes homosexuality is normal as scientific research shows it is found in many species besides human beings.

However a scientific definition of normal may not mean the same thing as a cultural definition. There are many cultures where homosexuality, once considered as an abnormal mental disorder, is now regarded as normal. Part of this change is due to scientific research that disproved many common myths and beliefs about homosexuality. When they do not have to hide for fear of social stigma and punishment, openly homosexual individuals serve as politicians, physicians, psychologists, teachers, police, military personnel, etc. Those who know them, their families, co-workers, and neighbors, consider them normal.

We thank you for this chance to summarize scientific research on this topic. Please direct any follow up questions to either Jack Drescher, MD or Warren Throckmorton, PhD.

Sincerely,

Jack Drescher, MD

Warren Throckmorton, PhD

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Marin’s Our Last Option

The new book by Andrew Marin is out. It’s titled Our Last Option: How a New Approach to Civility Can Save the Public Square. It is published as an e-book and is a straightforward and accessible read.

imageAs someone who spends a lot of time promoting (and participating in) dialogue among people who view the topics of sexual orientation and identity differently, I found the book extremely interesting. Marin has lived in Boystown (a predominantly gay neighborhood in Chicago) for years and launched The Marin Foundation to promote dialogue between the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community and the evangelical Christian community. It has been noted that the strengths of Marin’s first book, Love Is An Orientation, were his ideas for how to build interpersonal bridges and enter into more more constructive and meaningful discussions.

So when Marin offers ideas for promoting civic engagement, I think it’s important to read what he has to say. Given the context in which Marin cultivated and practiced his commitment to relationship-building, it comes as no surprise that LGBT issues play a central role in the book. But that topic is illustrative. It would be a mistake to limit the book to that topic. There are many applications and a much larger vision on display throughout.

Marin introduces the reader to his model for civic engagement in a pluralistic culture. He refers to it as the Composite Engagement Model (CEM). It has four principles: 1) A Proper Implementation of Reconciliation; 2) Practice the Countercultural Act of In-Person Interaction; 3) Build Bridges Instead of Armies; and 4) Fidelity Leads to Sustainability.

His opening chapters set the stage. Most of the book is dedicated to unpacking and illustrating each of these principles. The remaining chapters cover models of civic engagement and the application of CEM and religion and CEM and politics.

I hope people will read Marin’s book and consider his thesis, as well as other perspectives that may be a part of moving forward in a diverse and pluralistic culture. After all, many Christians have expressed concern that recent and pending rulings may restrict religious liberties in the U.S. in the years to come. Some conservative religious readers may question if Marin concedes too much in the culture wars. I can hear that concern, but the concern is often expressed by those who believe Christians should oppose each and every instance of divergence (away from a Christian ethic). Marin is at the very least asking Christians to think that through in light of a culture that has changed dramatically.

I believe Christians could benefit from thinking outside the box of the current models of cultural engagement. I was recently listening to Doug Laycock, a respected religious liberty attorney discuss some of the differences in the role of religion and the public perception of religion in the French Revolution and in the U.S. I will not be able to do the argument justice here, but let me say this: In part because religion does not have a positive cultural association in French history (as contrasted with the positive cultural associations in the U.S.), we see a very different contemporary relationship with organized religion in France. If Christians continue to engage in the culture wars as they presently do, will we be at risk of losing positive cultural associations and good will that have long been a part of our history?

If this thesis is right, would Christians benefit from thoughtful reflection on alternative models of engagement? I think it is worth careful analysis, and Marin places a model on the table for our consideration, and it’s one he has tried to live out and apply to a particularly divisive topic.

 

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Gender Identity Journeys

The institute I direct at Regent University has a new resource out titled Gender Identity Journeys: A Workbook for Navigating Gender Dysphoria. We occasionally produce these workbooks–typically on sexual identity–and have one for learning practical coping skills, one to help a young adult find his or her path (in light of sexual identity questions or concerns), and one based upon a narrative understanding of sexual identity. This is our first on gender identity conflicts or what is commonly referred to as gender dysphoria.

The idea to create a workbook came from working with older adolescents and adults who experience gender dysphoria, as well as providing consultations to individuals, couples, families, and organizations. There is just very little out there, and much of what is available might not resonate with a Christian who is trying to sort through a range of complex considerations.

gender identity journeys picGender dysphoria refers to the experience of having a psychological and emotional identity that is incongruent with one’s birth sex–this incongruence can be the source of deep and ongoing discomfort.

The classic example would be that of the person who feels she is a woman trapped in a man’s body. This is a rare phenomenon by all estimates. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.) estimates that between 0.005% to 0.014% of adult males and 0.002 to 0.003% of adult females have gender dysphoria (though the actual figures are likely higher when you include children, adolescents and adults who experience less intense gender dysphoria and do not meet criteria for a formal diagnosis nor have been seen at a specialty clinic.

In any case, the workbook defines terms and provides a little background information. Then it covers issues that may come up with identity and labels. Then it moves toward steps in disclosing to others, identifying and expressing feelings, finding healthy ways to cope, and exploring matters of faith and religion. There is also a chapter on various pathways based on a vignette in which a person considers a range of options.

I should also add that I was grateful to have some remarkable reviewers. Among those who offered assistance, one is a male-to-female (MtF) transsexual (has undergone hormonal treatment and sex reassignment surgery). Another is a female-to-male (FtM) transgender person. Still another describes herself as gender queer. A fourth reviewer is gay. All of them are Christians. Needless to say, their feedback was extremely helpful in making the resource comprehensive, relevant, and practical.

It is the kind of resource I wish I had for some of the people I worked with previously, and, like many workbook resources, I think it captures several of the topics and concerns that would be covered in the course of meeting with someone who is navigating this terrain.

 
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Posted by on January 27, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

On Telling People How To Navigate Sexual Identity

imagesSeveral people have asked me over the years about what I think about creative ways to live as a Christian sexual minority. I’m thinking of a conservative Christian sexual minority. Not long ago, the primary way to do it was to get into an ex-gay ministry of one kind or another. The way to live as a sexual minority was to no longer be a sexual minority by virtue of a change to heterosexuality. Even when that narrative was in full swing (and it still is in many places in the US and worldwide), I was asked about things like platonic partnerships or what people would talk about as lifelong relationships in which the two people who are either emotionally or sexually attracted to one another define the limits of their relationship in a way that reflects a traditional Christian sexual ethic.

If you are reading this and saying, “Why don’t they just get married?!?” or “Why put themselves through that kind of hell?!?” — it may help to understand that the people asking these questions are traditionally believing Christians. That is, they are Christians who adhere to a sexual ethic that states that sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman would be wrong. That’s not a discussion I’m getting into today. There is a place for that discussion, but let’s go with the premise that we are respecting a person’s stated beliefs and values surrounding sexual morality. What then?

I have conducted research on people who have tried to change their sexual orientation through involvement in religious ministries. Among other observations, I would say that most people did not have as much success in experiencing a shift along a continuum as they wanted coming into the ministry. There is more that could be said about that whole area, but I’ll leave it at that for now. I have for years supported folks who believe this is the best path for them, and I know several people who would continue to say this is the best direction for them.

I have also conducted several studies of people in mixed orientation marriages. That is, marriages in which one partner is straight and the other is a sexual minority (i.e., experiences same-sex attractions independent of sexual behavior or identity labels). These relationships are intriguing. I do not promote them–particularly one’s steeped in an ex-gay narrative of 180-degree change–but I do try to support people who are in them. I think there is a new generation of mixed orientation marriages that are coming out of a very different storyline (different than the ex-gay narrative), and I am curious to see what those marriages look like over time. I also want to support folks in these marriages.

Then there are Christians who decide that the best resolution is celibacy. To some, they have emerged as a new voice in the discussions about navigating sexual identity as a Christian. I want to support them as well, and I agree with those who say that we should conduct research to look at what this experience is like for a larger number of people over time (perhaps with a comparison group of single heterosexuals and married straight and gay persons–now that would be an interesting study).

But what about Christians who enter into a platonic partnership of some kind? (There could be many variations on this theme.) I am raising this question not only because I’ve been asked this question several times over the years, but also because of a new blog that is getting some attention. The blog is A Queer Calling, and it is written by two women who describe themselves as “a celibate LGBT Christian couple.”

cropped-prayerful-catI don’t really take a position that says such an arrangement is “right” or “wrong”. It’s kind of like the question I get about whether it’s ok for a Christian who experiences same-sex attraction to refer to him/herself as “gay.” I just don’t weigh in as though I have the deciding vote on whether its ok or not. Part of my thinking is this: I don’t face this issue in my life. For those Christians who do face this issue, I want to be supportive as they navigate this terrain. I imagine it’s hard enough to navigate without having the crowd in the stands telling them exactly how to do it. I also want to foster the kind of spiritual atmosphere and maturity that will aid them in decision-making.

You might ask what will come of hosting a public blog about that personal decision, but it is what they feel they can do, and perhaps they hope it will foster a kind of discussion about various options or life trajectories. I suspect that for them it feels like the “risks” (if you will) associated with a partnership of this kind outweigh the potential for loneliness or isolation many people report in remaining single. You might argue that they could do something more communal, which could in theory increase some of the intimacy while reducing some of the temptation. But each relationship you add creates a new set of expectations and obligations that would also need to be navigated for the kind of sustained/lifetime intimacy that is being sought.

No one resolution will fit every person’s experience. I’m not saying there is no “right” and “wrong”, but I am saying that it has been useful to show some humility as the very people involved try to sort this out. This may feel like new territory to many conservative Christian sexual minorities, and it would be good to support them, to come alongside them–even in circumstances in which you may believe they are not getting it exactly right–rather than keep them at arm’s length or judge them from a distance. If a couple is struggling to honor God with their lives together, and they are fully cognizant of the upsides and downsides of the various paths, then I would want to enter in and help them (pray for them, encourage them) in their exploration of creative alternatives.

I also want to promote discussions among Christian sexual minorities–so that they are able to talk to one another about this. Wouldn’t that be more helpful? How does trying to live as a celibate LGBT Christian couple sit with other Christian sexual minorities who share their values and are trying to figure all of this out? I imagine some would encourage a path to intimacy that reflects sharing more of a life in community rather than in an exclusive relationship, but others might disagree. In any case, I’m interested to hear their take on it.

 
 

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An Exercise in the Removal of Saccharine

more-reflections-smallI love the exchange between Melinda Selmys and her husband recounted in the opening pages of Sexual Authenticity: More Reflections. They are discussing her earlier book, Sexual Authenticity, and he says of it: “It’s shit. It’s fake. It’s saccharine. It’s not honest. It’s not you. Write it again.”

That is part of the backdrop for the book Sexual Authenticity: More Reflections.

Another part of her motivation to offer further reflections was the way in which she and her book had been surreptitiously brought into a larger culture war. Reflecting on one of her first public interviews in which she shared the spotlight with a reparative therapist, she writes, “I felt like a fraud. I’d written a book about how the Culture Wars mentality was wrong, and suddenly I was in the thick of that war, an artillery piece in the battle against the Gay Agenda.”

But Selmys has another personal reaction I have not known:

Moreover, I knew that the politicization of my sexuality was an obstacle to the work that I actually wanted to be doing. I was producing the kind of ex-gay narrative that appeals to good Catholic mothers and father and sisters and brothers who dearly want their loved one’s to be able to achieve a full, vibrant, healthy, happy heterosexuality – the kind of ex-gay narrative that has failed the LGBTQ community so badly because it falls afoul of the real experience of many people with SSA [same-sex attraction]. (p. 37)

selmysI haven’t had this reaction because I do not personally experience my sexuality in this way. As an academic who conducts research on sexual identity, however, I have seen my research used toward political ends in ways that I, too, believe have not been helpful to sexual minorities who are navigating this terrain. I am thinking primarily of the Ex-Gays? study. The reality is that 90% of my research is actually on sexual identity development and the experiences of sexual minorities of faith in Christian colleges and universities, in mixed orientation marriages, and in navigating family relationships. So I appreciated her transparency in sharing this motivation to offer more reflections.

The sections that were particularly compelling to me were her personal accounts of how trying to follow the expectations of others (and their related narratives) did great damage to her and her marriage. It gets into the whole area of what to do with one’s same-sex sexuality. Celebrate it? Keep it at arm’s length? Vilify it? Selmys comes to the conclusion that her same-sex sexuality is not “accidental” to her sense of self or her marriage. That doesn’t mean that her same-sex sexuality is central either. She is committed to naming false dichotomies:

Nor is [my homosexuality] accidental to my marriage. I did a lot of damage, both to my identity and to my relationship with my husband, by trying to conform to some sort of one-size-fits all narrative of sexual complementarity. Because I could not acknowledge the part of me that is “queer” in the early years of our relationship, I withheld that part of me from our marriage and tried to replace it with a simulacrum of “authentic femininity” which was not in any way authentic to me. This was a significant omission in my gift of self. (p. 67)

Readers of her blog will recognize many section of the book. She will offer a post and then reflect on it as she has clearly interacted with readers around significant themes that have shaped her thinking in an area. That may sound like it would be somewhat disjointed, but the book does not read that way at all. It is well-written and flows from reflection to reflection in ways that readers will appreciate. The two things that stand out to me as possibly “difficult” about her book are that (1) Selmys, as a Catholic, engages with Catholic theology and philosophy in ways that may not be as familiar to evangelical Protestants, and (2) she pulls no punches. I found the connections to Catholic theology interesting and helpful. Too often evangelicals limit their connections to what John Piper or Tim Keller have said. It’s not that these pastors and theologians are the concerns–it’s that evangelicals can forget the broader theological landscape that is in front of them.

As for the punches not being pulled, let me offer this as an aside: Melinda helped me with a writing project on gender dysphoria (a workbook soon to be available through the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity), and she has no qualms about telling a writer what she thinks about his/her work. Within a matter of weeks, I was fully aware of the sections of my writing that she did not like. It was refreshing and humbling. Well, More Reflections is kind of like that. Her writing is refreshing and honest in ways that are just not that comfortable for the existing narratives for faithful sexual minorities in the church today. Those narratives, of course, are largely “ex-gay”, reflecting a clean transformation into a pure heterosexuality, which has not been her experience (she names and challenges an array of narratives on pp. 56ff). And I don’t think it is most people’s experience, and it is THAT narrative (not any one narrative but dozens and dozens of comparable narratives) that needs to be told for the church to come to a more realistic understanding of what pastoral care to sexual minorities can look like.

When I first started conducting research on sexual identity, I participated in a think tank with many folks on the topic of sexuality and marriage. (Let me say outright that I love think tanks. This one met in Lourdes, France, and…well…we were there to think. Not a bad arrangement in my view.) One of the other participants was the late Fr. John Harvey, the founder of Courage, a ministry to homosexuals in the Catholic Church. I enjoyed Fr. Harvey as a faithful man with a gentle spirit. I would have loved to have had a “beer summit” with he and Melinda to discuss pastoral care to the sexual minority. In fact, these two would not have needed me; I’d be there for the beer. But to have them engage in a thoughtful, honest discussion about the lives of Christian sexual minorities is the kind of exchange that is needed with many Christian leaders to move the church away from the culture wars and toward genuine pastoral care. I did not experience Fr. Harvey as interested in the culture wars, either, but so many Christian leaders today are–and there is an important shift that simply needs to take place.

Pastoral care based on a saccharine-based sexual identity narrative will only offer peace to those of us who do not experience sexual identity conflicts. That’s not pastoral care at all. It’s stress management for the majority while our brothers and sisters suffer in the trenches of a battle they should never have had to face on their own.

I have been encouraged lately by the voices of many Christians who are engaging this topic from the standpoint of their own lived reality. People like Melinda Selmys. People like Wesley Hill, Ron Belgau and Julie Rodgers. Others who write alongside them at Spiritual Friendship. This is a book that will stand alongside others like it and alongside the thoughtful wave of younger, devout Christians who are engaging this topic and the church in a more public and honest way.

 

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Private Integrity

The year before last I was driving home from a psychology conference with two of my colleagues, and we were discussing ways in which technology could be a resource in facing any number of issues people deal with in our culture. We began sharing back and forth about some of those challenges, and one that we spent more time on what that of pornography. It’s been estimated that as much as 40% of web traffic is porn related, and numerous articles have recently pointed out ways in which it can have an effect on a person or couple.

So we began to explore how technology could be leveraged to help people who struggle with porn and who want to decrease their porn use. We discussed what people often do in counseling to make changes in this area and how to translate that into an app. That conversation led to a process I never thought I’d be a part of: app development.

Let me say with confidence that app development takes time and you make a lot of mistakes along the way. But that is just part of the story. The other part of the story is that I am excited to say we have finished it up and it has been released.

screenshots-calendar-1 The name of the resource is “Private Integrity,” and we have officially launched it as both a website and an app–the app is available in English and Spanish through the iTunes Store. It already has one nice review from a user.

The website is www.privateintegrity.org. We are actually signing people up for free through the month of January, so if you know someone who might benefit from this resource, please point them in that direction.

Here is a little bit about the resource (from our web site):

Pornography is an easy behavior to use to help yourself feel better momentarily. Many individuals end up feeling guilty and then once again loop back into the process of looking at pornography again. It becomes a downward spiral. Private Integrity reverses this process and helps you create an upward spiral. Instead of a downward spiral that results in more pornography viewing, you are going to learn how to use exercises to increase positive behaviors and decrease porn viewing. – See more at: http://www.privateintegrity.org/
 
 

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