Marriage as a religious act

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains, Grass Valley, California, at 11:00 a.m. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2013 Daniel Harper.


Splendid to us and much sought after is the sweet smell of love, established in the time of the ancients, guided by the voices of the prophets, and sanctified by the words of the teachers: because of all beautiful things of the earth, love is the most excellent. (Same Sex Unions, John Boswell, p. 292)

The other reading was a copyrighted poem which cannot be reproduced here.

Sermon — “Marriage as a Religious Act”

I’d like to speak with you this morning about marriage as a religious act. But in order to do that, I think I had better back up and first tell you a little bit about the sexual revolution as it occurred within Unitarian Universalism. I am not a historian, so this will not be history; rather, this will be the story of the sexual revolution as I happened to have heard other Unitarian Universalists tell it.

And I’ll begin with my mother and her twin sister. My mother’s family belonged to the Salem, Massachusetts, Unitarian church. In 1942, they went off to college in Boston, a women’s college that prepared young women to become teachers; in those days, young women could become teachers, or secretaries, or nurses, or housekeepers, though eventually they were expected to become wives. Being Unitarians, they went to First Church in Boston, not too far away. First Church was quite progressive for the day, and offered sex ed classes to college students. They were twins and split everything up, and my aunt was the one who went to the sex ed classes. She told me that the other students teased her when she went, but as soon as she came back they clustered into the room she shared with my mother, and wanted to know everything she had learned. This is the earliest example I know of sexuality education for unmarried persons within Unitarianism; that these classes took place outside the family, and long before marriage, represents a change in society’s understanding of sexuality.

Now we move forward to the 1950s, and turn to the Universalist side of our heritage (remember that the Unitarians and Universalists didn’t merge until 1961). I have heard it told that Kenneth Patton, the Universalist minister at the revolutionary Charles Street Meetinghouse in Boston, apparently conducted same sex union or marriage ceremonies there in the 1950s; but it was not the sort of thing that could be made public, not in those days, so we know little more than that such ceremonies probably took place. Obviously, this represents the beginnings of a change in the way we Unitarian Universalists understood marriage. (1)

Beginning in the 1960s, Unitarian Universalist women began seriously questioning the gender roles established for them. My family belonged to the Concord, Massachusetts, Unitarian Universalist church, and sometime in the early 1960s my father was invited to become an usher, which was considered a man’s job. My mother was invited to join the Flower Committee; and the way I remember her telling the story, she tried to remain polite but she made it clear she had no interest in arranging flowers. By the end of the decade, she was serving as an usher with my father — and I remember it was a big change when women became ushers. These small changes in gender roles at church helped us begin to question the larger gender roles associated with marriage.

As we moved into the later 1960s, there was a lot more sexual freedom in wider society; partly due to changing social values, but also due to the growing availability and legalization of inexpensive and effective contraception. In many ways the growth of sexual freedom was good, but it also had its dark side. Within Unitarian Universalism, there were too many ministers who decided that growing sexual freedom meant they could have sex with women in their congregation. I later heard stories about Unitarian Universalist ministers who allegedly had sex with women in their congregations during the 1960s; in one of these stories, the people in the congregation knew a woman’s marriage was going to break up when she went to pastoral counseling sessions with their minister. These are not pleasant stories to tell, but they help show how we Unitarian Universalists were questioning the meaning of marriage. And the way I have been told some of these stories, violation of trust by ministers helped galvanize some of the early feminists. So it is not surprising that some women who had witnessed clergy sexual misconduct in their congregations in the late 1960s became leaders in the Women and Religion movement in the 1970s.

During the 1960s, we Unitarian Universalists remained ambivalent on the subject of gay rights. In 1969, the same year as the Stonewall riots, James Stoll was the first Unitarian Universalist minister to come out as gay, but after coming out he never served in a Unitarian Universalist congregation again. At the same time, we published About Your Sexuality, a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum for early adolescents, which taught that homosexuality was perfectly normal. So we accepted homosexuality as normal, but we weren’t quite ready to let openly gay men or lesbians serve as our ministers. Needless to say, it remained controversial through the 1960s for a congregation to endorse same sex marriages.

The sexual revolution seemed to me to accelerate in the 1970s, perhaps because I was in my teens in those years. You began to hear about Unitarian Universalist congregations sponsoring same sex union ceremonies. The feminist movement accelerated, and we began to sing hymns that had de-genderized language for the first time. These were all positive developments.

On the negative side, I later learned that during the 1970s many Unitarian Universalists experimented with so-called “open marriage,” where you could sleep with whomever you wanted and still stay married. Sometimes this was called “wife swapping” instead of “open marriage,” which gives you a sense of how sexist this was. In many congregations, there were even adult education classes in open marriage (at which the mind boggles). While I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time, hindsight is always twenty-twenty, and too many people got hurt by some of these 1970s-era experiments in redefining marriage.

Not surprisingly, this strand of the sexual revolution played out in parts of our youth movement as well. My own Unitarian Universalist youth group was pretty much squeaky clean. But in some youth groups and in some district youth programs there was a good deal of sexual activity, which mostly followed the sexual example being set by some Unitarian Universalist adults. Thus I have heard about adult youth advisors who were sleeping with teens (and of course this was mostly male advisors sleeping with girls), just like ministers were doing with congregants. And I’ve heard about teenagers having lots of sex with each other at youth events, though when you talk with women who went through this as girls, they may tell you that it was rooted in sexist assumptions and sometimes it felt like sexual harassment and/or date rape. Again, I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time, but too many people, especially girls, got hurt.

Yet despite all this, in other ways we Unitarian Universalists made positive progress in rethinking marriage. One of the most important things we did was to change our thinking about gender roles in marriage. By the 1980s, I would say all Unitarian Universalists understood women and men to be equal partners in a marriage, and while plenty of marriages stuck with the old gender roles to a greater or lesser degree, we held up equality as an ideal. Also by the 1980s, we recognized that you could have committed, serious, long-term relationships without getting married; my current partner and I got together in 1989, and I felt no stigma from anyone in my Unitarian Universalist church because we were not married.

The 1980s was also the decade when I would say we had the most conflict about same sex unions and same sex marriages in our congregations. I know several ministers who got into real trouble in that decade for officiating at same sex marriages, and more than one Unitarian Universalist congregation got embroiled in serious internal conflict about whether or not they should affirm same sex marriages. By the end of the 1980s, I think the tide had turned. The conflicts continued — I myself witnessed one particularly nasty little conflict as late as 2002 — but increasingly we became comfortable with same sex marriages. Indeed many of us became active in advocating for the legalization of same sex marriages outside our own faith communities.

So that’s a very subjective telling of the story of how the sexual revolution moved through Unitarian Universalism, told from a very subjective perspective. This sexual revolution changed our views on a great many things, including sexuality, gender roles, and (of course) marriage. And I would like to point out three major consequences of this sexual revolution:

First major consequence: Feminism has become the norm for Unitarian Universalists. We firmly believe that women and girls are just as good as men and boys, and if you don’t feel that way, you are probably not going to feel comfortable among us. Because we believe that women are the equals of men, we have fundamentally changed the way we think of marriage between a man and a woman. In the bad old days, when a woman got married, she knew she was going to be subservient to the man; she would even give up her own name, and she would become, for example, Mrs. John Smith.

But once we figured out that women and men are equal, that did away with the old gender roles, and we no longer thought there had to be one dominant partner in a marriage, and that dominant partner was going to be a man. And that helped open up the possibility that a marriage didn’t always have to consist of a man and a woman.

Second major consequence: We Unitarian Universalists now openly affirm that sex is pleasurable. We know that sex is an important part of human experience. We emphatically do not believe that sex is bad, or “dirty.” Furthermore, we have no problems accepting new scientific advances, and so we have been perfectly willing to adopt new advances like oral contraceptives, and other new and more effective contraceptives. And the new contraceptives have meant that we don’t have to worry nearly as much as we used to about unintended pregnancies, which means that we have come of the purely pleasurable aspects of sex and sexuality. In these views, we are quite different from some other religious traditions.

Because of this, we don’t believe that marriage is primarily for the sake of reproduction. We think sex within marriage can serve to strengthen the relationship between the two partners. And that has opened us up to the possibility that a marriage does not have to be defined as a biological man and a biological woman whose main purpose is to have biological children together.

The third major consequence of the sexual revolution for Unitarian Universalists: We discovered that stable partnerships are best. During the 1970s, many Unitarian Universalists experimented with various kinds of open marriages, partner swapping, and the like. Viewed from a purely pragmatic vantage point, these experiments had more negative consequences than positive consequences; too many people got hurt (and too many of the people who got hurt were women, legal minors, and/or people in less powerful social positions). On this very pragmatic basis, we learned that stable partnerships generally cause fewer problems. At the same time, we are also quite clear that it is a good idea to end partnerships that are going badly; but we now know that we don’t want to end relationships on a whim, and that we have to consider how ending a relationships will affect children, partners, relatives, and others.

Another way of stating all this is that we know that sexual relationships have can have lasting consequences. This makes us more likely to believe same sex marriage is a good thing: we think it’s a good idea to have public ceremonies in which the partners express their commitment to each other, no matter what the gender of the partners may be.


To review these three results of the sexual revolution in Unitarian Universalism: (I) Feminism is the norm for Unitarian Universalism, and that means we don’t put people into strict gender roles. (II) Sex is good and pleasant parts of the human experience, and it exists for more than the purposes of reproduction. (III) We have come to find out that stable partnerships are best. Thus it is not at all surprising that we Unitarian Universalists are more willing to accept same sex marriage than quite a few other religious groups in the United States.

So far, I have looked at how our Unitarian Universalist views on sex, sexuality, and gender have changed as a result of the sexual revolution; and I’ve looked at three consequences of the sexual revolution. To wind up this discussion on Unitarian Universalist views of marriage, let’s take a look at what happens when two people get married in our tradition.

When you have a Unitarian Universalist wedding, there are three essential parts which are required: the intention, the vows, and the proclamation; that is, there is a statement that the people getting married really do mean to get married, then the people getting married exchange promises to one another, and finally, there is a statement that these two are now married. Everything else can get dropped from a Unitarian Universalist wedding ceremony.

Why are these three parts essential? They are essential because from our point of view, a marriage is a covenant between the partners in the marriage. In order to have a covenant, the parties to the covenant have to go into it freely and willingly — this is why we have the intention, to show that the parties to the marriage are entering into it freely and willingly. And in order to have a covenant, the parties involved have to exchange promises to one another — this is why we have the vows, for they are the exchange of promises between the people getting married. Finally, in our tradition a covenant should be witnessed by others in the wider community, and the wider community recognizes that you are married — this is why we have the proclamation.

Interestingly, a marriage ceremony in our tradition is not absolutely required; marriage is not a sacrament, nor is it mandated by religious law. In this, our tradition has some small similarity to the first thousand years of the Christian tradition, insofar as during the first thousand years of Christianity there was no religious imperative to get married, and marriage was a flexible matter; indeed, there were even same-sex Christian marriages throughout the medieval period. (2)

But the institution of marriage has changed enormously over the centuries: medieval marriage was very different from Renaissance marriage, which was in turn different from Victorian marriage, which is turn was different from mid-twentieth century marriage, which in its turn is quite different from marriage today. Marriage has always been an evolving institution; it continues to evolve today; and our great grandchildren may look back on what we consider progressive and think of us as quaint, alien, and old-fashioned.

To conclude, then, when we look at what UU religious marriages are today, we find that marriage is a covenant into which two people enter, promising each other their love and support. That covenant is recognized by a wider community, and ideally we hope that marriages will remain stable for as long as possible. We believe that sex is good and pleasurable and need not be limited to biological reproduction. And we do not think married couples should be restricted to mid-twentieth century gender roles.

Now let me leave you with this final important reminder: I have only been talking about religious marriage as it exists within our Unitarian Universalist tradition. I have not been talking about legal marriage, which is an entirely different kettle of fish. And the sad truth is that while we Unitarian Universalists recognize religious marriages for same sex couples, in the state of California those religious ceremonies do not result in legal marriages; whereas when we recognize opposite-sex religious marriages, those marriages are recognized as legal by the state. But I have done what I set out to do, which was to talk with you about marriage as a religious act.



Update, August, 2013: It should be noted that this sermon was written and preached at a time when two key cases were before the U.S. Supreme Court — Hollingsworth v. Perry, in which the plaintiffs sought to require the state of California to enforce Proposition 8, a ban on gay marriage; and U.S. v. Winsor, in which the plaintiff challenged the legality of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA. In June, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court decided both these cases in favor of same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court opinions for Hollingsworth v. Perry may be found here; that for U.S. v. Winsor may be found here. Same sex marriage became legal in California almost immediately after the Hollingsworth v. Perry decision; and and it appears that the effect of the decision on U.S. v. Winsor will be to extend federal marriage benefits to all legally married same sex couples, although this is a complex matter that is still being worked out in practice.

(1) Jeff Wilson has documented Unitarian ministers who were performing same-sex unions in the 1950s; see the Journal of Unitarian Universalist History, 2011.

(2) John Boswell, Same Sex Unions (Vintage Books, 1995).

Additional notes:

The sexual revolution: My telling of this history has been shaped by a published history of the sexual revolution, Davis Allyn, Make Love Not War: The Sexual Revolution: An Unfettered History (Little Brown, 2000). Despite the rather lurid title, this is a serious attempt at history, and is to my knowledge the only book-length history of the sexual revolution. The bibliography is especially useful for those who wish to study the history of the sexual revolution in more depth.

Unitarian Universalist history: Except where I have permission to retell someone’s recollections of the sexual revolution, or where I heard stories told in public, I have changed details to protect anonymity; these stories come from Unitarian Universalists who lived in the Northeast, in the Midwest, and on the West Coast. (As an aside, regarding legalization of contraception, it is worth noting that at least through 2012 it remained technically illegal to sell contraceptives to unmarried persons in Massachusetts, the state in which I was raised as a UU.)

History of marriage: For same sex marriages in the Western world prior to the Renaissance, see Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe by John Boswell (New York: Willard Books, 1994); for a brief look at the history of marriage from the Reformation through the Enlightenment, see “Reformed and Enlightened Church” by Jane Shaw, in Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body, ed. Gerard Loughlin (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007).

Theological grounding: Part of the theological grounding of this sermon comes from “Sex and Secularization” by Linda Woodhead, in Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body, in its description of how Christian denominations try to regulate private life in a secularized world. Also useful in understanding how religions react to the secularization of society is Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon (Abingdon, 1989), though I should say that I have serious disagreements with Hauerwas and Willimon.

Which Sexual Revolution?

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is from the book Make Love, Not War: The Sexual Revolution: An Unfettered History by David Allyn, a scholarly history of the sexual revolution in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In this excerpt, Allyn seems to be posing the question, “Whose sexual revolution was it, anyway?” He writes:

‘In the radical organizations of the New Left, women found that they were often taken for granted: they were expected to answer phones, cook meals, do laundry, and provide sexual companionship — in other words, to be secretaries, housekeepers, and concubines. Male radicals were often as sexist as their own fathers were…. [And] male hippies in communes were not much better than their activist counterparts. Former hippie Elizabeth Gipps says, “I remember screaming one day when the men were theoretically meditating while the women were cleaning the floors around them.”…

‘By many accounts, young men in the sixties were indifferent to their female partner’s sexual needs. One woman recalls, “Of course, most guys expected you to ‘put out’ just because they bought you dinner. But every time I had sex I felt like I was dealing with someone from another planet. They guys just didn’t get it. They wanted instant gratification…. Once I asked a guy to [give me an orgasm] while we were making love and he looked at me like I was certifiably insane.”…’

The second reading is from the Bible, the Song of Solomon chapter 7, verses 10-13, a book of the Bible that praises the delights of lovemaking:

I am my beloved’s,
and his desire is for me.

Come, my beloved,
let us go forth into the fields,
and lodge in the villages;

let us go out early to the vineyards,
and see whether the vines have budded,
whether the grape blossoms have opened
and the pomegranates are in bloom.
There I will give you my love.

The mandrakes give forth fragrance,
and over our doors are all choice fruits,
new as well as old,
which I have laid up for you, O my beloved.

SERMON — Which Sexual Revolution?

Those of you who come to church each week may notice that I’ve been doing a series of sermons exploring the dimensions of feminist theology. This is the third sermon in that series.

There’s a joke among Unitarian Universalist ministers that in our churches it’s easier to preach about sex than about money. We do have the reputation of being one religious tradition that is quite willing to talk openly about sex and sexuality. That reputation has a certain amount of truth in it, for we have no religious belief that sex and sexuality are evil. If someone quotes Bible passages that allegedly prove that sex is evil, we Unitarian Universalists are likely to quote other Bible passages that prove that sex is fun and good. We heard one such Bible passage in the second reading this morning, a passage from the Song of Solomon. The Song of Solomon is one of the sexiest poems in our culture, thus proving our point that the Bible is sex-positive.

Indeed, some of our critics have suggested that once upon a time we were overly enthusiastic in our embrace of the sexual revolution. After all, we feel that women and men should have the right to use the contraception of their choice; we feel that we should rely on individual women to exercise their individual consciences to determine whether or not to have an abortion; we do not believe that premarital sex is a sin; we do not believe that homosexuality is a sin; and we believe that women and girls are just as good as men and boys. Each of these views conflicts with the religious views of some other religious traditions.

When we say that we embraced the sexual revolution, we should really ask ourselves, Which sexual revolution did we embrace? Did we embrace the sexual revolution that says, “When it comes to sex, anything goes”? — and there are people who say, or at least imply, “Well, but if you allow gays and lesbians in your church, next thing you know you’ll be having orgies in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings.”

I must inform you, however, that that isn’t true. I have never seen an orgy in a Unitarian Universalist church. In fact, I have to say that on average the Unitarian Universalists I know are more straight-laced than the North American. Yes, we affirm that sex and sexuality are a normal part of who we are — yes, we affirm that sex and sexuality are an integral part of our religious selves — but affirming these things does not logically lead to the conclusion that we have orgies in church.

At the same time, there is a grain of truth in the accusation that Unitarian Universalists did engage in the part of the sexual revolution that said, “When it comes to sex, anything goes.” Some Unitarian Universalists had some wild times in the 1960’s and 1970’s and, I’m afraid, even into later decades. In this sense, we are no different than the wider population. Yet we are different from the wider population, for one simple reason: feminist theology and feminist thinking have been perhaps the most important force within Unitarian Universalism since the late 1960’s.

So it is that there are many parts of the sexual revolution that we can, indeed, affirm: that individuals have the right to use contraception, that individual women have the right to decide whether to have an abortion, that sex and sexuality are natural and normal, that women and girls are just as good as men and boys, and so on. Feminist theology can give us a good, solid grounding for our views on sex and sexuality. What we have to do is to tease out the several different strands that ran through the sexual revolution, to figure out what it is that we can affirm based on feminist theology, and what we may want to reject based on feminist theology. To make this a little more clear, I’d like to tell you a bit of the story of a typical Unitarian Universalist church, the church that I grew up in, and what happened in that church as it went through the years of the sexual revolution.

When I was a child — this was in the 1960’s — our church had a young, dynamic minister. Although the congregation had been older and graying, this young dynamic minister supposedly attracted younger families, many with children, to the church. On the whole, everyone thought he was a good thing for the church.

At some point in the late 1960’s, however, opinion began to turn against him. Some said they didn’t like him because he had become an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. Others hinted that something darker was going — one woman told my mother, “If only you knew what I know about our minister!…” Whatever the cause, or causes, attendance began to drop. By 1970, when my father was the head usher, he remembers that there would be only forty or so people on a Sunday morning, where there used to have two hundred people. By 1971, that minister had been forced out. All this happened when I was a child, and I don’t remember much of it myself.

In late 1974, my older sister started going to the youth group at the church. By the winter of 1975, she had talked me into attending as well. She hadn’t been going to the youth group before that fall, and I had stayed away as well. I don’t remember exactly why we stayed away from church in those years, but I do remember that prior to 1975 I perceived the youth group as filled with scary kids who did lots and lots of drugs and had lots and lots of sex. I guess if you’re a little older than I, the sudden availability of drugs and sex in the 1960’s might have seemed exotic and liberating; but for many people around my age, drugs and sex also became associated with certain amount of fear. One of my best friends had almost been sucked under by drugs in sixth grade, and I still remember talking to an older girl who had lost her virginity at sixteen and who said, “Sex really isn’t that great,” with a tone of voice that said more than the words themselves.

But back then, my perception was that the sex and drugs had been cleaned out of our church’s high school youth group sometime before 1974, which made it feel safe enough for me to join. The new assistant minister was our youth advisor, and he was the one who told me about the accusations against the minister who had ostensibly been fired for his stance against the Vietnam War. The assistant minister said, “Didn’t you know that he had been having sex with someone in the congregation?” I hadn’t heard that accusation before.

Since then, I have wondered how many of the accusations about the youth group were true. Were those kids really having lots of sex and doing lots of drugs? Or were the teenagers a convenient scapegoat for people to blame when they could not talk about the minister’s alleged indiscretions? I don’t think I’ll ever really know the truth of what went on.

Meanwhile, there was another revolution going on all around me, the women’s liberation movement. I still remember when the little bright green hymnal supplements appeared in the pews. It contained some of our most familiar hymns rewritten to remove gender-specific language. I remember hearing about women ministers for the first time — not women ministers from the musty past, but women ministers who were active right then, in nearby Unitarian Universalist churches. Not only that, but there were two women in our own congregation who were preparing to be ministers, and who were duly ordained by our church — although those ordinations happened after I had left home for college.

And women were taking on increasingly prominent leadership roles in the congregation. When my mother first joined that church, she was invited to be on the Flower Committee, and later was invited to teach Sunday school — traditional women’s roles in that church, and in many churches. (For the record, she tried joining the Flower Committee, but soon quit in a certain amount of disgust — in her own way, Mom was an early feminist.) But fifteen years later, when I was in the church youth group, it was becoming more and more acceptable for women to serve in any leadership role in the church. I should rephrase that: by fifteen years later, women had insisted on breaking down the barriers of discrimination that had existed in church leadership.

So it is that I myself witnessed at least two revolutions within my own church. One sexual revolution centered around what used to be called “free love.” Another revolution, a feminist revolution, centered around women’s liberation. These two revolutions have been linked together in the popular imagination, but as I experienced them they were quite different. The so-called “free love” that I witnessed involved little or no feminist awareness. The feminist revolution, at least the part of it that I witnessed, was not about having lots of sexual intercourse, it was about women fighting to gain some measure of equality with men.

As I said earlier, I’m not telling you this not because you should care that much about my personal experiences, but more because I think that my experiences were not uncommon among people who grew up in liberal churches. Indeed, when I talk to some other people my age who grew up in that time, they have much more outrageous stories than I do — adult youth group advisors who were sleeping with kids in their youth groups, churches where the lay leaders played at “wife-swapping,” ministers who were sleeping with many women and men in their congregations, open marriage workshops at churches, and on and on. I’m afraid we have to admit that our Unitarian Universalist churches, and liberal churches in general, sometimes went past the boundaries of acceptable sexual behavior.

So where are those acceptable boundaries of sexual behavior? That is a question that I am just beginning to answer. One thing that helped me make sense out of the sexual revolution was a scholarly study called Make Love, Not War, the book by David Allyn that was the source of the first reading this morning. One of Allyn’s most interesting insights is that the sexual revolution can mean different things to different people. Some of the sexual revolutions that Allyn identifies include:

— wide availability of birth control pills, thus allowing women to have more control over whether or not to have children;
— a growing acceptance of premarital sex;
— a series of legal decisions that broadened First Amendment protections to include works previously defined as “obscene”;
— experiments in free sex, group sex, open marriages, and group marriages;
— the end of laws banning interracial marriages;
— growing acceptance of masturbation as a normal expression of sexuality;
— the increasing commercialization of sex and sexuality;
— the erosion of the “double standard” that said that men could sleep around but women were supposed to remain monogamous;
— homosexuality getting changed from something that was considered shameful into gay liberation and gay pride.

When I began to look for acceptable boundaries of sexual behavior, I realized that women experienced the sexual revolution differently than men did, as we heard in the first reading this morning. Improved birth control supposedly freed women to enjoy sex in new ways — yet, as often as not, women remained mired in traditional, repressive gender roles, providing sex, and doing the cleaning while the men were supposedly meditating.

So when I began to look for acceptable boundaries of sexual behavior, I realized that a good question to ask is this: How did the different aspects of the sexual revolution affect women and girls? Some aspects of the sexual revolution improved the lives of women (and really the lives of men too): access to birth control, the end of interracial marriage, acceptance of masturbation as normal, broadened First Amendment rights, equal rights for gays and lesbians, the end of the double standard. Other aspects of the sexual revolution did not improve the lives of women and girls. The ever-increasing commercialization of sex and sexuality has not made women’s lives better; instead, commercialization of sex has tended to dehumanize women, to turn women into commodities, into things. Free love and open relationships may have made some women’s lives better, but all too often free love and open relationships have been used as excuses by men to have sexual escapades. Back in the 1970’s, when they called it “wife-swapping,” the fact that it wasn’t called “husband-swapping” pretty much lets you know that it was the men who ran that show. Free love and open relationships have often proved to be harmful to the well-being of women and children in other ways: when free love and open relationships lead to the break up of stable homes, children can suffer emotionally, and women can suffer financially.

So it is that not every aspect of the sexual revolution has been good for women. And the insights of feminism and feminist theology can help us sort out which parts of the sexual revolution we might want to affirm, and which parts of the sexual revolution we may choose to be more critical of.

Sex is a beautiful, wonderful thing. We could say with equal correctness that sex and sexuality are gifts given from God; or say that sex and sexuality are a natural part of human experience and are affirmed in the most ancient religious traditions. However you choose to word it, sex and sexuality cannot be considered evil; they are good. When you read religious texts about sex, like the Song of Solomon, you also realize the incredible power in sex and sexuality.

It is a power that we have to continually learn to use for good: a power that can bring us closer to the ultimate truths of the universe. As is true with anything that powerful, it can also be used for evil. From the perspective of feminist theology, sex and sexuality are evil when they are used to control or harm another person. Thus, sex and sexuality are evil when they cause one person to ignore another person’s humanity; they are evil when they are used to hurt or injure another person.

Then we can move beyond a narrowly woman-centered theology to draw wider conclusions. When homosexuality is used as an excuse to beat up and shoot gay men, as happened last winter at Puzzles Lounge here in New Bedford, that’s an example of sexuality being used to evil ends. When marriage between people of different skin colors is illegal, that’s an example of sexuality being used to evil ends. When same sex marriage is made illegal, that’s an example of sexuality being used to evil ends. In each case, the sexual revolution has worked to end evil, has worked as a force of good in the world.

Drawing inspiration from parts of our religious tradition like the Song of Solomon, and drawing inspiration from our own positive sexual experiences, I’d like to be able to say that we have a sex-positive religion. We can affirm sex and sexuality as an essential part of our selves. We can affirm sex and sexuality when it makes us more fully human. We can go further, and affirm sex and sexuality that go so far as to provide divine experiences. Yet feminist theology also helps us to understand where we can draw firm boundaries, so that sex and sexuality remain positive, life-affirming experiences for all person, no matter what your gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation; no matter who you are.

So may it be.