Toronto Sun

Sun, May 23, 2004

In the garden of Eden

By Marianne Meed Ward -- For the Toronto Sun

Where would you go to learn about great sex?

Chances are "church" isn't the first thing that comes to mind. And that's a shame. Because if you can get past the often shame-inducing, anti-sex messages, the church has some good advice about how to have good sex. It's best in a committed relationship. It should flow out of love and respect for your partner. It should be more about serving than being served.

And who can forget the lusty passages in the Bible, in Song of Songs: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth -- for your love is more delightful than wine ... Let the king bring me into his chambers ... My lover is mine and I am his; he browses among the lilies ... How beautiful you are and how pleasing, O Love, with your delights! Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit."

To quote rap-star Nelly, "It's getting hot in here." So why don't we hear more of that in church, instead of prohibitions about sex? Because we're an erotophobic culture, says John Ince, Vancouver author of the newly released book The Politics of Lust. Don't be fooled by the sexual permissiveness that seems prevalent in our culture, he says. It's all sexual bravado.

Fear

Underneath all the semi-clad posturing is a fear of sexual pleasure. Why else would we ban consenting adult sex in public places? Group sex? Prostitution? Educational videos with explicit sex -- The Joy of Erotic Massage or The Erotic Guide to Sexual Fantasies for Lovers, for example -- while Filthy Little Whores and Demented Sex Acts get past the censors?

In his 23 years as a lawyer crusading for sexual civil rights, he's seen it all. His book formulates a theory about the causes of our erotophobia: Social negativity aimed at sex (and the church is a big culprit); negative sexual experiences (like rape); and rigid personality traits.

In the church, both theology and rigidity are to blame. Consider St. Augustine, who believed any sexual desire to be illicit. Or Gandhi, who told people they must choose between sex and spiritual development. Or the Catholic Church, which does the same: Men may choose sexual consummation or service to God, but not both.

That's the opposite of how it should be, says Ince, and he quotes Genesis for proof. In paradise, Adam and Eve "were both naked and they felt no shame." It's only after they sin that they want to cover up. So our sexual fears (or lack of them) are a barometer of our relationship with God, each other and ourself. The healthier those are, the more sexually positive we are. I tend to agree.

On top of theology, churches often have rigid, hierarchical social structures. And those breed erotophobia, too. If you're inclined to see a part of yourself (your sex drive, for example) as inferior, you're more likely to embrace that stratified thought in your external relationships: Women are inferior to men, children inferior to women, people of another race or religion inferior to yours, and so on. "Sexual prohibitions breed the psychology that embraces the pecking order," contends Ince.

Patriarchal cultures

Controversial? Yes, but he's got a point. In patriarchal, religious cultures that forbid women from even showing their faces, under the guise of protecting them, women are still raped. Then they are shamed and shunned, alongside -- or sometimes instead of -- the perpetrator.

My main complaint with Ince's book is the subtext that all prohibitions on consensual sex are based on erotophobia. No, we might just want to protect each other from harm. Not all consensual sex is beneficial. But where the church goes wrong is focusing on the potential risks: Unwanted pregnancy, disease, broken hearts. People quickly discover sex doesn't always lead to those things. And people also discover that marriage is no guarantor of good sex, or protection against sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies or failed romance. And enforced celibacy doesn't prevent sexual abuse.

We need more sermons on how to have good sex rather than shame-based diatribes.