Sexual advances and the advancement of power

The weekend papers were full of it. Nick Clegg came back early from his holiday to issue a statement. The next morning the top Catholic in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, brought forward his retirement and recused himself from the Papal conclave soon to begin which will choose the next Pope.

But it’s not just about those whose names are known and paraded in the press. Nor is it just more about the women, or men, affected. It’s about something that let this happen, and not just in its magnitude but also in the little things, the hand on the knee, the closed door, the subtle pressure to go along.

It is about the relationship between men and women, and about the relationship between sex and power. Lord Rennard, the former chief executive of the Liberal Democrats has been accused of inappropriate sexual advances to various women over several years, and that has been accompanied by accusations the party did not do enough about it. And Cardinal O’Brien faces allegations of inappropriate behaviour toward three priests and one former priest in the 1980s.

It could be presented as a straightforward case of right and wrong, or of particular people acting badly towards other. And in a way it is and they did. But it is not straightforward, men were the alleged victims as well as women, and as several commentators have blundered into saying, what’s so wrong with a hand on the knee?

That’s where power comes in. It’s why it doesn’t matter if it’s a man or woman, or girl or boy. It’s what differentiates a hand on the knee that’s a fairly normal act of flirting, from abusive behaviour.

Power changes things.

It makes something wrong that might otherwise be okay. And why does it do that? It is because power places pressure; power exists in hierarchy; power operates with authority. And that matters because power takes away autonomy. Power makes it hard to say no. Power makes us dependent on other people.

Whether it is with a boss who could fire you, demote you, make your life a living hell. Or a respected community figure, a church leader, part of who’s role it is to tell you what is right or wrong. And now what they are doing – they are telling you, with their actions if not words – is right and to object is wrong.

It is what made it hard for Liberal Democrat staffers to come forward and talk about their experiences. It is was has enshrined a culture of secrecy in the church that has covered over a multitude of sins.

When power is used to silence, it is a sign that something is wrong. This is what we are talking about when we find that we are not able to talk about something. In Shane Hipps’ book ‘Selling water by the river’ he talks about light and darkness. Light is not the opposite of darkness, darkness is the absence of light. It is impossible for the two to exist together, one removes, without hindrance, the other. Where there is light there cannot be darkness.

Where there is light there cannot be darkness.

It doesn’t mean the darkness never exists. But it means that there is another road. A road where light illuminates the way, and where things that might thrive in the dark, may be enforced by an abuse of power, have no place.

Sex and power also point to other things. These two forces rarely operate in isolation, they expose other agendas, other problems that might lie a little deeper down. Whether it is questions about whether celibacy in the Catholic church has had its day, or if women in politics have to fight a culture we may have hoped had seen its last.

And maybe this is where we circle back around to the conversation about sex and shame and silence. And why we need to talk about things that might be awkward, if only so that others are helped to talk about what might be the hardest words for them to say.

Speaking truth to power helps others speak truth too. If there are things that we will not say, we should question our silence if only to question whether we might be complicit in others feeling they have no option but silence.  

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Beauty, lust and attraction

My view of what makes someone beautiful is distorted. It swings like a pendulum. From beauty in the eyes of media buyers and fashion columnists, to a rejection of physical attraction as somehow beyond the realms of what I am supposed to feel.

Sara, in her guest post focused on the former trend, so I’ll give less attention to this. But I will say a bit because I’m a guy and I see things a bit differently. I guess this is sort of a part two to her post at the weekend.

It will come as a shocking surprise to no one that the way I look and think about women is not always with the purist motives. I could blame it on a culture that has promulgated the Barbie doll image as the best way to get attention, snag a husband, and achieve generic happiness. I could blame it on television programmes that slip sex scenes into disconnected plot lines. Or the magazines that brandish nearly naked women as the way to get ahead. Or I could go the whole hog, blame the internet, it’s turned porn from the furtive acts of men in trench coats to the very next thing you see on your screen.

Last year a survey of Christians in Northern Ireland found that 65 per cent of men under 35 have intentionally accessed porn. It was more prevalent among church leaders, who also had a higher rate of affairs. Gareth Davies has recently suggested it might need addressing in sex and relationship education at schools due to the harm it causes.

Porn does things to your brain. It makes you think something is normal which is not. It provides a go to destination for lust and temptation. But it does something more. It alienates relationships from sex. It offers what you think you want in a way that comes without a cost. So when we look at an attractive girl we see sex, and when we encounter the challenges of living life with other people we opt for the easy casual disconnected option.

In See Me Naked Amy Frykholm tells the story of a man addicted to porn:

“Pornography had provided Matthew a safe place, deep inside himself, for pleasure. But the connection to another human being was part of the fantasy. Images of naked strangers provided the illusion of openness, as if the woman whose photo he looked at was making herself available to him. Pornography had the capacity to make him feel both fleetingly alive and simultaneously numb. Fantasy replaced the nuanced intimacy demanded of him in his everyday life.”

As well as being a guy that finds girls attractive, I am a single guy that finds girls attractive. I may have been a little less than serious with my step by step guide to marital bliss, but there are things that are in my mind when I weigh up if I’m interested in a particular lady. And physical attraction is on that list.

Should it be?

Should I find girls attractive, and should I use that judgement to decide who I want to spend my life with? I think so. I think otherwise I am abusing beauty in just as destructive way as the covers of magazines that portray a mirage of beauty painted onto a hollow shell.

Appreciation of physical human beauty is supposed to be off the reservation. It is akin to lust. It is gazing at what causes us to sin. So we should cover it up and avert our eyes. Beauty is not without consequences. I am guilty of only a little hyperbole.

Because when I walk down the street and I see a girl sunbathing in the park my eyes linger longer than they should. When I’m standing in church supposedly singing songs of praise to the God I love, I find my love annexed by the girl I am presently smitten with. My appreciation of human beauty is so often lust, it is so often unhealthy, and it ingrains in me a suspicion of that particular emotional reaction. When I see something that is beautiful I think that it is wrong that I have come to that conclusion based on my instantaneous and almost involuntary registering of attraction.

There is such a thing as lust. But beauty isn’t just found in those people to whom we are attracted to, or to use the infantile but efficacious expression, people we fancy.

Why has my view of beauty become so defined, so contingent on a message that beauty is a sexual thing, and sexual things should be desired after, and if I want something sexual then I should be able to get it? How have I let myself become consumed by a vision of sex that is so commodified and mangled into a shape that serves what I think that I want in that particular moment?

Leonard Cohen and biblical sex

“He saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you, she tied you to the kitchen chair, she broke your throne and she cut your hair, and from your lips she drew the hallelujah.”

A moment of madness, a rash act, a crazed maze of unintended consequences. One minute David was gazing longingly at a woman bathing, the next he was sending her husband to the front of the battle to cover over the shame of having conceived his wife’s child.

Avoiding the fact that Leonard Cohen neatly conflates David and Samson’s stories into one testimony of the triumph of sexual temptation, the picture he paints is one never far from our own experience. We may not have avoided the challenges of battle to recline and seduce our neighbour. We may not have lost our incredible strength by succumbing to the charms of Delilah. But I’m sure there are times when we’ve let sexual temptation steal something from us.

When we’ve let our lust take from us the hallelujah that is due to God. When we have ducked the challenges of life for the easy satisfaction that is purportedly presented to us on a plate. The chance to have what we want, when we want it, and walk away unchanged but with our needs satisfied.

Free love, that’s the tale we are told and the dream that we are sold. And was the topic for week 2 of Christchurch’s Love is a Verb series.

But there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and there is no such thing as free sex. Everything comes with a price. Sex is an act of commitment between two bodies. Not that I’d know, but one hears that it is an act of immense fulfilment, which creates an obligation beyond just the physical experience of the moment. Which is why sex is best within a relationship that can bear the weight of commitment in emotional, psychological, spiritual, material as well as in the physical sexual sense.

Otherwise, the free love that we are experiencing leaves us in debt. It carries the weight of more than it can hold, it either tries to hold all of those levels of commitment on a pin head or we remove the attachment it creates and empty sex of its meaning.

The problem for David wasn’t that he failed in his worship of God, but that his life did not match up to that worship. I know that feeling too well. The ecstasy of worship followed by the cascade of the fall. The love for God and the desires of self. One doesn’t do away with the other. I can love God with all my heart, I can be passionate in my worship for him and still walk in the opposite direction. I know that path all too well.

I know the grace that comes when I confess all that I have done and all that I have thought. I know the darkness of my soul that is washed clean, and rendered ruined once again.

But love and worship of God isn’t a part time hobby. It’s not something we can pop into and out of. It’s not something we can leave to the side and pick up after we are done with what we wanted to do. It’s more than a full time job. It is complete absorption in the purposes and rigour of a life defined not by yourself. It is giving every ounce that you have and know that you have given it all, and then realising that is the time God’s grace is most present. In the moment of weakness, not before we try, but once we have failed.

Two final thoughts that may make there way into further posts so I’d love to hear your thoughts. Firstly, David tried to cover over his shame, and that made things worse. It is the haunting effect of guilt that drags us into deeper secrecy and shame in a forlorn effort to cover over our sin. The fear of shame allows it to become more ingrained and more pronounced. How do we break the ties of shame that clamp us to the floor?

Secondly, and this one I almost expected. The line that sex is a great gift from God, complete with the requisite analogy demonstrating its power but also the need for it to be used in the correct way. Maybe that needs to be said, but it comes supremely close to a taunt, that it is the greatest gift you will never receive. Unless you get married. There’ll be more on singleness in a couple of weeks, both in the series and on this blog. But how do you handle this tension, the need to affirm sex as good without making the wait all the more difficult for those not in a place to experience it?

Let’s talk about sex

Romance Academy are running a series of road shows over the next couple of months called ‘Let’s talk about sex’ which are aimed at equipping adults to talk about sex with teens.

I wonder if we need a parallel series to help adults talk to each other about sex. Because it’s not really something we do particularly well. Maybe it is just because I am single and therefore not privy to the conversations of married couples who talk among themselves about the permitted relationships that I am not to know of. Maybe it is out of fear that we will corrupt one another with talk of illicit liaisons. I don’t know, I just know it’s considered off limits for polite conversation.

Even a very brief conversation in the office which flirted with the topic seemed awkward and hedged, and out of place. The hesitancy of asking someone who is married to write a guest post marked the inbuilt challenges of the topic.

It is not that I want to know the intimate details of people’s personal lives, or that I think it is essential to be fully informed about how each and every aspect of married life works out behind closed doors. But maybe it would be helpful if we knew a bit more, and if we were willing to talk about it with a bit of openness that might help those of us this side of the Rubicon know what lies ahead.

There’s two aspects to this, one for those who are soon to get married, and the other for those for whom it seems a distant concept not really related to our everyday lives. In terms of marriage prep I’m assured that for some it is talked about and discussed well, but for others leaves gaping holes that become problematic after the glitz and glamour of the wedding day has faded away. This is not something I’m going to delve into but if you’ve got either a good or bad experience of marriage prep and are willing to write about it please get in touch, I’d be happy to feature something along these lines.

One day I hope to get married. I don’t know when that day will be, and it is possible it will never come. And it will change my life. Admittedly probably not as dramatically as having kids, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. So many parts of my life which I like the way they are will have to change: I will no longer have sole charge of my destiny (and my delusions that I do now will be even more abruptly shattered). I can visualise what it might be like to live in permanent commitment to another person, I can toy in my mind with the concept of a brutal crushing of the ego as the focus of my attention turns from me to another.

But then there is something else. Something that I have been told not to do. Something that I have reacted so strongly against in adherence to the creed that it is sinful and wrong. That thing which for so many years has been wrong suddenly becomes right.

And that is the problem. I’m not arguing for leniency or encouraging sex before marriage, in fact I think a more brutal openness about sex could lead to less sex outside marriage. At the moment it is so hushed up and secured in a lead-lined box of secrecy that it ferments activity in private that betrays the values we hold to in public. We’re told not to think about sex because it will lead to lust, and therefore are aided and abetted in covering over the temptations we face. We do not talk about it, we remain British, we are stoic and polite and proper and pretend that sex is something that only ever happens between married couples.

I’ve heard stories about couples who struggle to have sex after they get married, who are paralysed by fear that they are doing something wrong. The doctrine of sex as sin has been etched so deeply that the sanctity of marriage does not erase it.

How should we go about talking about sex in a more open and honest manner? How do we educate and inform each other about the joys and the frustrations, the license and the limits? How do we understand the love that sex is part of, and the lust that remains despite it?