Safe, not sterile: discussing sex at church

by Amber Belldene

Recently I was at a clergy conference where I got to have conversations I’ve been longing for. We talked about sex. Not as a part of a plenary, or even a formal small group meeting, but around tables at meal times, and over glasses of wine. We touched on the complicated ethics of sex in the modern world, and what to say when it becomes a pastoral issue. We laughed, we argued, we blushed and fanned ourselves. It was holy.

But even at that gathering of priests, where we were all ostensibly peers, occasionally someone would say, “Well, this conversation doesn’t sound like safe church.” Those comments gave me pause. Our conversations might have made some people uncomfortable, but that’s not the same as unsafe. When we talk about sexual abuse in the church, or even sexual harassment in the church, we are talking about an abuse of power, where someone uses his or her institutional authority inappropriately. It’s a terrible thing, and something the church has a grave history with, but it doesn’t mean sex itself is unsafe, or that is should be off limits as a subject of discussion.

One of the greatest blessings of my ministry has been the duty to talk about sex with adolescents. I’ve blogged about it before. Here it suffices to say that kids are hungry for honest conversations about sex, and ethics. What they glean from popular culture is confusing, astonishing, and often rather exciting to them. I’m in my thirties, and TV and music are radically more explicit than they were even just fifteen or twenty years ago. I’ve had middle school boys make jokes to me about Fifty Shades of Gray. I’ve had parents tell me their high-school aged daughters read that book without them knowing. I am an avid reader and enthusiastic writer in the genre of sexy novels, but I wouldn’t want a teenager reading one without an adult to help contextualize it.

The problem is, many parents don’t know how to talk about sex with their children.

Maybe that’s because many of us adults are fine with a dirty joke between friends or a sexy T.V. show, but we struggle to talk honestly about sex—what’s hard about it, what’s amazing about it, what’s ridiculous about it, and when it is holy.

The Episcopal Church, with our moving sexual diversity and our incarnational theology has invaluable things to say about sex as sacramental. And the truth is, we collectively have a darn good sense of humor about the subject. But we haven’t figured out how to bridge our jokes and our abstract theology with the practical conversations both kids and adults need to have—and which many like me might be longing for.

It’s not that hard. We need to start by claiming the safety and the importance of the conversation. The more we neglect conversations because we fear abuse, the more sex takes on a secret and shameful power that leaves all of us more vulnerable.

Then we need to have the conversation, which is very different from a list of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.

Here’s what works for me: I offer adolescents, or couples in pre-marital counseling, or friends with dating dilemmas, the framework of right (versus sinful and distorted) relationship from our catechism. From there, we can begin to talk about what that means in practice, not by extrapolating rules, but values like honesty, intimacy, mutuality, and respect.

There are so many good resources out there, and perhaps readers will mention ones they like in the comments of this post. I know I really admire how the Journey To Adulthood Curriculum tackles this subject.

The Episcopal Church has helped to form me into a person who believes human sexuality is a blessing. I’ve been further blessed in my ministry, by getting to have honest, heartfelt, humorous and holy conversations about sex. I want to keep having them and I hope you will join me here, or on social media, or when we have the chance to meet face to face. I trust God will bless those encounters too.

Amber Belldene is a romance writer and her real life alter ego is an Episcopal priest. She believes stories are the best way to examine life’s truths, and she is passionate about the relationship between sexuality and spirituality. The first two books in her debut vampire series, Blood Vine and Blood Entangled, are now available from Omnific Publishing. She loves Jesus, wine, history, heirloom tomatoes and erotic novels. Connect with Amber: Website | Blog | Twitter | Facebook | Goodreads

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