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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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Deep Faith

in-search-of-deep-faith_jim-belcherJim Belcher, author of Deep Church, has a new book out titled, In Search of Deep Faith. The book was sent to me from the publisher, InterVarsity Press, as a gesture of goodwill at Christmas. These are always nice gifts, but I tend not to read them. This one caught my eye, however.

I think there are a few reasons why I cracked this book open. The main one was that we were just on sabbatical in Cambridge last year, and the setting for In Search of a Deep Faith has Jim Belcher and his family on sabbatical in Oxford. He had taken his family there for his sabbatical, which is actually a year-long time of rest and spiritual pilgrimage.

The fact that Belcher is there with his family also was a hook. Our children were not exactly keen on Cambridge. They missed their friends, their sports events, their devices… You get where I’m going. Well, Jim faces similar challenges–only for a longer period of time.

Many of Belcher’s  heroes are actually Christians who are heroes to many believers. There is William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, Corrie ten Boom, and many more. I had actually read a biography about Wilberforce when I was on sabbatical. I had previously read a bibliography on Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas – and then out book club read it again this year. All that to say: a number of these folks were already on my mind because of the depth of their faith and the life lessons they teach us as Christians.

The reader will find those familiar accounts, but Belcher writes in a way that points out some interesting sights along what may be familiar terrain. I appreciated reading his accounts of Bonhoeffer’s last days and what it means to die well; of Corrie and Betsie ten Boom’s experiences and what it means to find peace in the midst of suffering.

I was encouraged (as a father who is raising three children) to read another father’s account of how these stories serve as life lessons for Christian faithfulness, lessons you want to pass along to your kids. So there is this interesting mix throughout the book of historical accounts, spiritual reflections, and stories of family treks to historic locations and lessons he and his wife wish to teach their children. He summarizes what he hoped the pilgrimage would be for his family and for the reader:

–that the stories and myths and metaphors we were experiencing, the places and people we were encountering, would activate our imaginations and illuminate for us the different realities competing for our affections; that through these stories and encounters we would learn about our roots, understand the journey we are on and recognize the importance of knowing our destination. (pp. 258-259)

Belcher is a good writer. It is an easy book to read, and the whole thesis is one that challenges all of us to live our lives with a greater appreciation for the trajectory we are on, with a greater sense for the end toward which we are all moving.

 

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Looking Back, Looking Forward

Just got a report from WordPress on what people liked on the blog over the past year. Let me say at the outset that I am not much of a blogger. I write more when I have time off from my normal job, and that isn’t often. So my writing is infrequent, and it is mostly about stuff that I have either published or am reading for my book club or other readings.

2013_2014-in-Sand-724x479So what did people tend to read or like? The most popular posts were on sexual minorities in faith-based higher ed (here) and the series on mixed orientation couples (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, additional thoughts). I’m not too surprised by this. These were pretty interesting studies, and part of what I try to do with these posts is make them a little more accessible to people who are not likely to read original research. There is also a very popular blog post from a few years back on value conflicts in counseling. The legal and ethical issues surrounding whether a counselor can/should/should not refer a client around value conflicts continues to be an interesting subject.

Most people come here from Facebook, which is likely due to the ISSI FB web page. I update that much more frequently and then link to articles I have over here. If you read the blog but haven’t checked out that page, it might be of interest to you.

Folks came to the site from 124 different countries. Interesting. Mostly the U.S. and Canada, but don’t sleep on Australia and the U.K., which are coming in third and fourth.

As I look forward to 2014, I anticipate stories about faith and sexuality will primarily be my focus, although I just finished reading a book about faith that has nothing to do with sexuality, and I will have a post up soon about that. It was really good, and it brought back a lot of memories from my time in Cambridge. Also, I have new book scheduled for release in April titled Sexuality and Sex Therapy: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal. You can read more about it here. I imagine I’ll post about that as we get closer to the publication date. It looks like I’ll participate in a dialogue at a national psychology conference, so I may discuss aspects of that if appropriate. I’ve also been asked to consult more on gender identity/dysphoria, so I may post a little more about that in the coming year. That is a fascinating area that deserves more time and attention.

So there you have it. Looking back at 2013 and looking forward to 2014. Let’s go.

 
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Posted by on December 31, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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New Study Published on MOCs

Academia is like farming. From the initial design of a study to the actual publication of it in a peer-reviewed journal takes time and patience. A study we conducted on mixed orientation couples has finally been published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. It is a really interesting quantitative study, and I think it adds something to what we know about these unique relationships.

commitment1Let me say at the outset that the findings might seem somewhat obvious, but a lot of what research does is provide empirical support for what most of us might assume would be true if we gave it some thought. If you were to reflect on what you think would go into a satisfying relationship, you might think that a commitment to the relationship was a part of that. You might also think that having a disposition toward forgiving your partner was also going to be important to relationship quality. Well, that’s really what we found among people who are in a mixed orientation relationship.

So a mixed orientation couple is a relationship in which one partner is heterosexual and the other is a sexual minority. When we refer to a “sexual minority,” we are thinking of someone who experiences same-sex attraction regardless of behavior or identity label. That may seem rather broad, but we are using a definition that has been used by others within the gay community who conduct comparable research. In terms of our sample, we had 105 sexual minorities and 160 spouses participate in this study. Most of the sexual minorities were male (53%) and most of the spouses of sexual minorities were female (74%). (Note that this was not a study of the couples but of people in a mixed orientation relationship–hence the percentages.)

As a group, folks were mildly distressed (on average and in terms of their overall relationship quality/satisfaction). They reported low/moderate levels of relationship commitment. In terms of the study hypotheses, we were looking at what predicted relationship quality. Essentially, relationship commitment, partner-focused forgiveness, and contractual-versus-covenental marital values (collectively) predicted relationship quality.

Relationship commitment contributed the most to relationship quality, followed by partner-focused forgiveness. Contractual-versus-covenental marital values did not add that much. Regarding relationship commitment, we say that “commitment is a protective factor for promoting relationship quality, satisfaction, and longevity in this population.” We note that relationship commitment is not unique to mixed orientation couples, but it does seem to be connected to relationship quality. It might be promoted by thinking about and strengthening one’s long-term goals or vision for themselves as a couple, reflecting on the commitment/investment they have already made, and fostering a sense of cohesion (or a sense of US) as a couple.

Give-ForgivenessPartner-focused forgiveness is also important for relationship quality. This is true in other relationships as well, but in mixed orientation couples there are issues the come up that are rather unique related to disclosure, any sense of betrayal, and whether extra-relational intimacy has occurred. This kind of forgiveness is essentially a propensity to forgive one’s partner, and this appears to be important in these relationships. To place this in context, we know from other research that forgiveness in general is a good thing to promote. It is associated with reduced stress, improved physical/emotional well-being, and enhanced relationships. Moreover, in relationships, promoting forgiveness can aid with reducing conflict, enhancing intimacy, and improving overall relationship satisfaction.

So there you have it. As I said, in some ways research confirms what you might already suspect if you were to give it some thought. But so little research has been done with people in mixed orientation relationships, and much of the research has been more qualitative in nature (based on interviews, for example), so a study based on quantitative measures does add something to the literature.

We have a couple of other papers coming on mixed orientation relationships, as we studied these same couples over a few years. Those are currently either under review or in the process of being written up and submitted. Again, from start to finish, research simply takes time. There’s a kind of slow plodding about it that is hard to appreciate unless you spend much time in this arena, and I’m grateful for students and colleagues who have stayed with these projects and helped bring them to fruition.

 

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Liberal Democracy & The Christian Citizen

We are up to Chapter 2 of the book, Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft by Francis J. Beckwith. I thought I had missed a couple of chapters due to my travel schedule; however, it turns out we did some other readings and held discussions of various presentations in the interim.

politicsChristiansChapter 2 is titled, “Liberal Democracy and the Christian Citizen.” Beckwith wants to answer the opening question: “What does it mean to be a Christian citizen in a liberal democracy in the early twenty-first century?” He begins by explaining a liberal democracy. The liberal aspect is with reference to “the liberties or freedoms” guaranteed by government, including the freedom of speech, assembly, press, religion, and the right to own property (p. 59). The democracy part is about self-governance (representative government) and equality before the law (treating citizens similarly).

Beckwith goes into some background about the importance of a civil society, the U.S. as a constitutional republic, separation of powers, and other way in which liberal democracies can function (as in the case of our friends across the pond).

Now we get to the Christian citizen. Beckwith draws from and discusses principles he sees in Scripture: (1) Caesar’s coin, (2) doing justice, (3) knowing government, and (4) voting for/supporting non-Christian candidates.

The Caesar’s coin part is interesting, as Beckwith observes that most teaching on this is about the different spheres of authority: the church and the government. The church is to be concerned with the things of God, the things God cares about, especially those things (i.e., people) who bear the image of God. The question is not whether we should care for the poor, clothe the naked, etc., but “What is the best way to achieve success in these endeavors?” (p. 64) In his conclusion to this section, he writes: “So Christians in a liberal democracy, because they have the means to effect change, should be concerned about whether the wider culture and/or their government agencies and institutions (such as public schools) are properly shaping, or at least not corrupting, the character of its young people” (p. 67).

In the section on doing justice, Beckwith discusses how liberal democracies afford Christians an opportunity to elect leaders who will do justice on a larger scale–just as we are to do justice as individuals. There is a fascinating discussion over the range of opinions in our society and among Christians in how “doing justice” is applied to debates on gay rights, including how defending one set of rights may foster a kind of hostility toward another group (e.g., members of religious communities whose moral theology may be intruded upon by the state), citing the example of Catholic Charities not offering children for adoption in Massachusetts because they excluded same-sex couples.

The section on knowing your government reflects on the apostle Paul’s use of his own status as a Roman citizen to “ensure that the gospel could be preached freely” (p. 74). It ends with another fascinating discussion–this time of debates about stem-cell research and philosophical anthropology.

The last section has to do with supporting non-Christian candidates. Part of the discussion here is that “non-Christian candidates may have at their disposal theological resources that, although not shared by Chrstians, may help Christians and other non-Christian citizens see that the principles of liberal democracy are integral to the candidate’s worldview and undersatnding of a just society” (p. 86). The other part of the discussion was about whether Christian or non-Christian candidates view their own theology as knowledge (see The Kennedy Mistake on pages 84-86). Is the religion believed and lived by a candidate really to be made private such that worldview considerations shaped by meaningful theological commitments are held at bay? Or do they inform substantive public dialogue and related policies? Great discussion.

We are reading this book to take us outside of our discipline (psychology and counseling) and to look at how integration is done in another discipline (political science). I think Beckwith does a nice job modeling a balanced perspective in his work here. He wants to avoid the two extremes of (1) arguing for and with reference to any one political group (e.g., Republican or Democratic platforms), and (2) arguing for any kind of theocratic state. He is looking for thoughtful, Christian engagement with politics.

In the end, he wants the Christian to think about which policies best support the common good. He draws on biblical principles to facilitate that kind of reflection–considers what it means to love one’s neighbor; to help those who are on the margins; to pursue justice and condemn injustice; and to foster a “rightly-ordered social fabric” (p. 88). He believes both special and general revelation speak to these kinds of concerns–that there is natural reason for caring about these common goods that can be discussed apart from simply citing Scripture.

I don’t have the time to unpack all of the points of discussion and implications, but I will say this: It is interesting to think about current and future debates about religious liberty. There are a number of arguments being made today that threaten or appear to threaten religious liberty. As one person pointed out, it is ironic that some of the very groups behind these arguments owe their movement to the kind of social context that protected the freedom to express dissenting points of view in the first place. Will those groups likewise protect religious liberty, freedom of conscience, and the right to hold dissenting views? There is a broader need here that has to do with accommodating freedom of conscience, that recognizes that thoughtful people will disagree on matters of conscience, and that society is better when it recognizes and protects the right to do so.

 

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