Sexual Lifestyles and Choices -- Where Are We Now? Part I

Lay-led Sermon by Dan Murphy, 9 July 1995

Having lived though the particular period of history that I have, it is especially meaningful to be holding this service this morning. My teenage years were mostly during the 50's, one of the more conformist eras of modern American history apparently, and one not likely to give those in their formative years the idea there was really very much choice or diversity possible, or in any event acceptable, in regard to sexuality.

For some reason, perhaps as a reaction to the turmoil of World War II, society seemed to want to put out of sight the fact that there was any such thing as sexuality. Ozzie and Harriet slept in separate beds; there was a big debate at the TV network over whether anyone could say the word "pregnant" on the I Love Lucy show, fearful apparently, that the mere word might give unsuspecting children some hint of how a prospective mom comes to be "with child".

Little wonder then, that I, and probably many of my friends, literally had no idea that there was such a thing as homosexuality, much less that there might be people that I even knew for whom that was their lifestyle. It was a challenge back then merely to acquire the basic facts of procreation, much less to find out that it might be possible to have sex just for pleasure, for connection, and indeed as part of a full, human, and spiritual life.

Church in particular was a place where sex just didn't exist. To this day, it is still instinctive for many people that religion is in the business of saying "thou shalt not" around most aspects of sex, and thus sexuality is practically the opposite of spirituality and goodness.

This is indeed a sadness. For there is probably nothing as fundamental to our humanity as our sexuality. It is fundamental to all life that there be a means for procreation. Life itself can almost be defined as those organizations of matter which are able to procreate and multiply. The varied and complex feelings and behaviours which we as humans have as our heritage have brought us to the present generation and will bring forth generations to come. Any philosophy of life or instruction for living that does not assist and promote a full and rewarding expression of our sexual being is tragically incomplete.

And sadly, there are still many today who, in the name of religion, would deny and disallow most aspects of human sexuality. Some of this is even based on misreadings of biblical texts. For example, the "sin of Onan", who cast his seed upon the ground, has traditionally been cited as divine disapproval of masturbation. However, a reading of the full story gives a very different message.

You see, in the religious and social practices of Onan's time, if the husband of a childless woman died, it was the duty of his brother to lay with the woman and so provide her with a child to be the heir to the deceased father. How is it we never hear that part of the story from the religious right? In any event, Onan didn't want to do that and so, in the language of King James, cast his seed upon the ground. His "sin" then, was in failing to father a child, not in masturbating for pleasure.

In fact, many of our traditional sexual mores were based on a simple principle: whatever promoted having lots of children was good; anything which avoided procreation (or might been imagined to, given the limited scientific knowledge of early societies) was verboten. This is understandable. Only in our century has world overpopulation become a serious concern. For most of history, and in most societies, lots of children were essential to the survival of the community.

Thus, heterosexual activities other than intercourse were disapproved -- they didn't lead to pregnancy. Even today, many states still have laws on the books which enumerate such activities, define them as perversions, and provide penalties for them, even between married persons. By the same token, homosexuality was declared a sin and sanctioned -- because it didn't lead directly to procreation.

The problem with all these prohibitions and attempts to limit sex strictly to the service of procreation is that nature and evolution don't seem to have intended it that way. Human being have a capacity for sexual response that is far more varied and complex than any other species. Consider two obvious aspects of this: in practically all other species, sexual excitement is only triggered when procreation is possible. In humans, sexual excitement is possible at any time, and in fact, until the advent of contemporary scientific instruments, it has never been possible to tell exactly when a woman is fertile.

In addition, in humans, sexual activity continues in time well beyond the years when childbearing is possible.

The study of anthropology, and more recently, social anthropology, can give us insights into how some of these patterns and behaviours evolved and how they may have served us in earlier times. Just in the past year, significant studies have shown, for example, how lifelong monogamy is not necessarily as programmed into our genes as we might have thought -- or have wished. Apparently, we still carry with us behavioral remants of earlier times when a 4-year, or 7-year, or 18-year duration of a pair adequately served the purposes of childrearing and so was more the rule.

I cite these and other studies not to suggest that behaviours from our distant past should control what we do today, nor even that they would justify any particular choice or behaviour. However, the study of our past does inform us about things which give rise to the feelings and preferences which we have. It should also help us to set more realistic expectations of ourselves. If we find, for example, that non-monogamy has been common in human history, and indeed in many other species with whom we share some traits, we may be less surprised and therefore less critical of ourselves if we experiences feelings of restlessness or attractions to other people even in the context of a good and solid primary relationship. When such feelings surface, logic and rationality are not necessarily sufficient to negate them. They may arise in part from a deeper part of ourselves -- the closest thing we still have to instinct.

How we choose to act on them is, however, another matter. It has been said, "experience and acknowledge your feelings fully, but let your mind guide your actions". As UUs, we are committed to respecting the dignity of others and to an ever-growing understanding of how to live together without violence. With respect for ourselves and those with whom we may be in relationship, I believe we can each make decisions about our behaviour that will serve our emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being and will do no violence to others or to society. The rules aren't as simple as we may once have thought, and as some still say, but then, that's what we know about the rest of life as well.

I believe that we all, gay or straight, owe a debt of gratitude to the gay and lesbian movement of the past several decades. For many gays, the decision to accept their sexuality and to acknowledge it publically in the face of prevailing attitudes was a step more difficult than many of us ever have to take. To continue on, then, and demand gay rights, inclusion, and understanding has taken time and commitment, and has sometimes exacted a cost. From such risks, however, the rewards have been substantial -- changes of laws and changes of attitudes which have enhanced the lives of us all.

The value goes beyond that however. The drive for gay and lesbian understanding and acceptance has forced our society to confront sexuality in a much broader way thus establishing an atmosphere where sexual lifestyle and choice can be discussed and diversity not only tolerated but celebrated. Our society still has far to go in developing a full and healthy attitude toward sexuality. There is still way too much repression, and as a consequence, an obsession with sex and patterns of non-serving behaviour. Nonetheless, the path of progress is toward more openness and honest discussion, not back to shame and denial.

The battles are not over, of course. Throughout the country, there are still forces working to exclude gays from the protection of the law, to once again define homosexuality as bad and wrong, and to denigrate and demean those who do not conform to some narrow view. It is up to each one of us to see that this does not happen. The anti-gay minority is often very vocal in their opposition, and they often claim religion as the authority for their opposition. Will we be as courageous in our committment to truth? On any day, at any time, any one of us might have an opportunity to speak up for tolerance and inclusiveness. Do we let an intolerant remark go unanswered because we want to be polite? Do we write a letter to the editor or call a talk show to support a humanist viewpoint? Do we communicate with legislators to support progressive legislation?

It is still a risk to do these things, particularly because matters of sex are still charged in our society, and old moralistic notions still seem to demand lip service from politicians. However, we are here today because of the courage of others before us and the risks that they took.

We avoid risk out of fear, but security is not to be found by avoiding risk. I would like to close with the words of Helen Keller, and as you listen to them, recall the obstacles that she overcame and the commitment to life that she had:

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of man as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run that outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing.
Life is a daring adventure, and all the more so when we are aware of all the possibilities for living it. Our debt of gratitude goes to all those who have expanded our horizons and our possibilities.