Religion, Sex Positivity, Politics, and the Media

In mainstream Canadian media accounts, there is a prevalent portrayal of the “Christian Right” holding “sex-negative” attitudes, while other Christian attitudes about sex get little attention, creating the perception of a generalized conservatism around sexual politics by evangelical Christian denominations. Consequently, a broad and diverse range of denominations are being painted with one brush. In mainstream media, we are inundated with dramatic  messages  about what are  considered to be “good stories” by media franchises attempting to sell drama, because drama sells newspapers, or gets ratings and hits.  For example, Canadians listen to the news tell them about protests against reformed sex education in Ontario’s public school systems, which is  opposed by the president of the Canadian Christian College. In online news sources, Stephen Harper is quoted having sent blessings to “Christian Nationalist” rallies who are said to believe in  the ideal of a Christian nation: “non-believers — atheists, non-Christians and even Christian secularists — have no place, and those in violation of biblical law, notably homosexuals and adulterers, would merit severe punishment and the sort of shunning that once characterized a society where suspected witches were burned” (MacDonald. May 7/2010).  The irony in this is that scripture, when interpreted through a more sex-positive lens, could actually be considered tolerant, even permissive in various ways  that this paper will elaborate. I argue that the media’s depiction of certain fundamentalist views is unrepresentative of the range of Christian views of sex, and that it creates an availability bias among the general public in Canada. I argue further that the media’s skewed portrayal is made plausible because of its consistency with historical yet outdated Christian values around sex. I will define the concept of sex-positivity, outline the myth-based elements of shame and perversion built around sexuality that  may impact public perception of modern Christianity. (In this paper,  my focus on sexuality relates to people’s  romantic or intimate behaviours and attitudes, rather than their sexual orientations.) I will also discuss the Christian Right, its presence in Canada, where they stand around sex politics, and note where sex positivity is existent in modern Christian groups within Canada. Finally, I will acknowledge the relation our current Canadian Government has to these arguments.

Sex and religion 

Sex positivity is a relatively contemporary term, and one not often associated with tradition or religion .  It  signifies the freedom to choose one’s sexuality and an acceptance of  others’ sexual choices, without judgement. “A sex-positive approach means being open, communicative, and accepting of individuals’ differences related to sexuality and sexual behaviour” (Williams, Prior, Wegner, 273). There have been several sexual revolutions over the course of known human history that have helped shape the way we, as a modern society, perceive sex.  When we take the time to think about the ways our personal narratives around sex affect our treatment of it in our lives, we must acknowledge cultural influence on those narratives. Religious belief systems and background are a large part of what lies beneath social scripts, and cannot be left out of the conversation when talking about where sexual politics come from. “Since the dawn of history every civilization had prescribed severe laws against at least some kinds of sexual immorality” (Dabhoiwala. 5). The use of the word “immorality” in this statement is the crux of where things slant in a negative direction. Sexual freedom, or permissiveness of a sexual nature, is associated with acting decidedly immoral as far back as history records. There are countless biblical references to innocence marked by “virginity”, and promiscuity being shamed, despite countless more incidents of sexual activity outside of marriage, which calls into question the  biblical value on monogamy.

A heavy emphasis on monogamy is a common thread through most modern Catholic and Protestant denominational beliefs. It is, therefore, of interest that in early parts of the Old Testament, instances of sexual permissiveness and non-monogamy are common. Despite Abraham’s marriage to Sarah, he has a son with Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar, because he and Sarah assumed she was unable to conceive. Jacob, meanwhile, married Leah, and later Rachel,  and had children with Rachel’s maidservant, Bilah, since Rachel could not conceive. These instances all seem to be in the name of reproduction, and none of them seem to be handled well emotionally by the parties involved, but they are still considered to be appropriate, within the context of the scripture. This also seems to be the case of Solomon,  who had 700 wives and 300 concubines.

Problematic to current feminist reason, there is high value placed on a woman’s virginity throughout the Old Testament, and it is considered the property of her father until sold for a price, literally or figuratively, to her future husband. As modern feminism indicates that virginity is a social construct, and not a natural fact despite it’s social significance, the value placed on “virginity” is problematic for sex-positive thinking. There is little criticism that could be considered productive on this front, however, since within the Bible, “laws of sexuality and the categorizing of perversions (has) remained immune to any amendment for more than three thousand years” (Westheimer and  Mark. 52-53).

In the creation myth of Genesis, there are two instances of God creating humanity. The first indicates more equality, stating “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (New International Version. 1.27). The second version is depicting woman being created out of man: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’ for she was taken out of man” (2.23). These passages are referred to time and time again as evidence of scripture that gave birth to patriarchal concepts that keep women in the shadows of men, and strip them of their rights to express themselves as free and equals, sexually and otherwise. The contrary could also be interpreted, as Reverend Debra W. Haffner states in her article on sexuality and scripture. The first instance of human creation states, “Be fruitful and increase in number” (1.28), suggesting permissiveness around sexual activity. The second version also seems to affirm, saying “for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (2.24). Reverend Haffner  explains, “Side by side, the two different creation stories emphasize the equality of men and women, recognize that we need companions and helpers in life, affirm sexuality as both procreative and recreative, and underscore that God is pleased to offer humans this gift” (8). This is important because the roots of sex positive culture lies within equality for every person, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.  Many Christian fundamentalists, however, reject such a reading, and  they have been the most successful Christian voices to attract the attention of the media.

Sex and religion in Canada

The concept of the Christian Right is one that is relatively new to Canada, even if the foundation of the terms’ roots is not. The definition of the term, in accordance with its American roots, suggest it to be “first used in the late 1970s to describe the surge in political activity among Protestant fundamentalists and evangelicals. Its usage has since been flexible, sometimes referring to the broad community of religious conservatives and other times referring to a small subset of institutionalized organizations pursuing cultural and economic conservatism” (Moen). Its presence in Canada seems to have come along with our current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and his emulation of a Republican approach to politics in the United States. That being said, Malloy argues that incorporating religion into politics is not how Canadians behave themselves, and the Canadian Christian Right pales in comparison to its American counterpart, having a long way to go to garner the kind of influence over political climate that exists in the U.S.  When The National Post is quoting Charles McVety comparing teaching small children about consent to teaching them how to engage in sexual activity, suggesting allowance of statutory rape, a picture is painted of an institution holding a set of beliefs around what are acceptable conversations to be having in a public educational setting. In the realm of sexual politics, a conservatism exists around issues such as consent, sexual orientation, sex outside of wedlock, and how sexuality plays a role in our lives. These conservatisms are not conducive with an increasingly unprejudiced Canada, as they are largely an inaccurate portrayal of Christian value systems. They monger fear to people who do not know any better, and they silence those who do know better about their religious beliefs, because they  do not want to expose themselves to the judgments of a progressive perspective. In a nation with a growing percentage of non-religious people, it is becoming  less safe for those with Christianity-based belief systems to be transparent about them, and that goes directly against Canadian charter of rights and freedoms.  Thus, Christian denominations who are much more sex positive  are not compelled to argue their views. Since the topic of sex is already one that is hesitantly discussed, inertia has room to take hold here.

Many Christian denominations have become more sex positive; they have supported  women’s equality and same-sex marriage, which is being legalized all over the Americas as countries drop like dominos for the current climate of acceptance. Women are being ordained as ministers within many denominations. While the Roman Catholic church still holds tight to  conventional institutional practices, the current Pope Francis has been making strides toward a more forward thinking stance on things like climate change and issues of class inequality, which is more than could have been said for any previous pope. That being said, the Roman Catholic Church still sits firmly on the right end of a spectrum reflecting views on women’s rights and sexuality, referred to by Hunt as “traditional Catholic teachings in which sexuality refers only to heterosexuality, usually married, and procreative” (159).

The top three religious orientations in Canada, according to 2001 Census, are Roman Catholic at 45.8%, No Religion at 17.2% and United Church at 10.2%. “The United Church is (therefore) considered the second largest denomination in Canada. It is a union between the Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians” (Edmonston and Fong. 331). The United Church of Canada is considered “the largest and most widespread Protestant denomination in the country” (Scott, 128). and follows a Protestant line of thinking, in that “because our purpose is affirmative we have as far as possible adopted rather the language of Scripture, a language which matches the supreme facts it tells of, God’s acts of judgment and of mercy… So we acknowledge in Holy Scripture the true witness to God’s Word and the sure guide to Christian faith and conduct” (United Church of Canada. 1940). The United Church’s thinking was built upon a Protestant idea, one with attention paid to the scripture as what was to be looked at for guidance and direction. While the United Church of Canada is considered “progressive” use of that descriptor is a long forward stride from the roots of where their ideologies began. In the 16th century, at the peak of the Protestant Reformation, there was heavy criticism of the Catholic Church and their short-comings in the policing the sexual exploits of their congregation, and especially within their priesthood. Ideals for reformers such as Luther were that  “God’s many pronouncements against whoredom were to be taken even more seriously; all sex outside marriage should be severely punished” (Dabhoiwala. 12). With beginnings such as this,  we can observe the origins of Protestantism’s sex-negativity. Simplification of their daily life, church, and family practices “gave rise to the cliche that protestants feel awkward if they are having too much fun” (Scott. 85). Weber argues, when speaking of Puritan Protestantism, “wealth is thus bad ethically only in so far as it is a temptation to idleness and sinful enjoyment of life,  and its acquisition is bad only when it is with the purpose of later living merrily and without care” (163). Today, however, “The United Church of Canada prides itself on welcoming everyone the way Jesus did, regardless of age, race, class, gender, orientation, or physical ability” (United Church of Canada. 2006), suggesting nothing short of radical inclusivity.

Conclusion

When the diverse range of religious  perspectives found among Canadian Evangelicals is  characterized narrowly according to an unrepresentative subset, only certain Canadian values are  made visible. Canadians often pride themselves on their multiculturalism, diversity,  and peaceful reconciliation of differences. The last decade has been particularly interesting when it comes to religion’s presence in politics, as Prime Minister Harper has not only taken an approach to politics reminiscent of Republicans in the U.S.;  he has also dismantled numerous policies that conflict with his particular Christian view of the world. Malloy reminds us that “[Harper’s] government’s cancellation of national daycare, cutbacks to women’s programs, and ham-handed cuts to arts funding can be interpreted either as fiscal or social conservative initiatives” (360), highlighting the Prime Minister’s penchant for cutting social programs. Harper’s tactics have been criticized for their deviation from the principles of Canadian politics by popular media and academic sources alike. As Malloy highlights, many observers of Canadian politics have acknowledged the “mixing [of] religion – especially evangelical Christianity – and politics” — a behaviour which many view as “unCanadian” (352).  Canadian sexual politics have been significantly affected by Harper’s approach. Progressive social groups working on issues of sexuality, sexual health and consent should be aware of and concerned with these political tendencies if they are to preserve the hard-fought advances that have been secured in the domain of sex and sexuality.

WORKS CITED

The Bible: New International Version. Colorado Springs, CO: International Bible Society, 1984. Print.

Dabhoiwala, Faramerz. The Origins of Sex: A History of the first Sexual Revolution. London ; New York : Allen Lane, 2012. Print.

Edmonston, Barry, and Fong, Eric. The Changing Canadian Population. Montréal: McGill- Queen’s UP, 2011. Print.

Haffner, Debra W. “Sexuality And Scripture.” Contemporary Sexuality 38.1 (2004): 7-13. Acad- emic Search Premier. Web. 17 June 2015.

Hunt, Mary E. “Just Good Sex: Feminist Catholicism and Human Rights.” Good Sex: Feminist Perspectives from the World’s Religions. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 2001. Print.

MacDonald, Marci. “How Canada’s Christian right was built” Toronto Star. May 7th, 2010 Web. http://www.thestar.com/news/insight/2010/05/07/how_canadas_christian_right_was_built.html

Malloy, Jonathan. “Bush/Harper? Canadian And American Evangelical Politics Compared.” American Review Of Canadian Studies 39.4 (2009): 352-363. Academic Search Premier. Web. 23 June 2015.

Moen, Matthew. “Christian Right.” Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Ed. William H. Swatos. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 1998. Web. http://hirr.hartsem.edu/ency/Cright.htm

Scott, Jamie S. The Religions of Canadians. North York, Ont.: U of Toronto, 2012. Print.

United Church of Canada. 1940. “A Statement of Faith.” Internet.

http://www.united-church.ca/beliefs/statements/1940. Accessed June 18, 2015.

United Church of Canada. 2006. “Overview of Beliefs.” Internet.

http://www.united-church.ca/beliefs/overview#5. Accessed June 18, 2015.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Scribner, 1958. Print.

Westheimer, Ruth K., and Jonathan Mark. Heavenly Sex: Sex in the Jewish Tradition. New York: New York UP, 1995. Print.

Williams, D.J.; Prior, Emily; Wegner, Jenna. “Resolving Social Problems Associated With Sexu ality: Can A ‘Sex-Positive’ Approach Help?.” Social Work 58.3 (2013): 273-276. CINAHL Complete. Web. 11 June 2015.

Violent Relationship Portrayal: An Analysis of Beauty and Grey

More than 50 different shades of relationship abuse are depicted in the best selling trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James, and none of them have to do with bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism or masochism (the interchangeable words that make up the catch-all acronym BDSM). The two series of books have made a significant mark on current popular literature, and continue to be a hot topic with the release of the film adaptation of the first book this year. Published originally in 2012, nearly two decades after The Beauty Trilogy by A. N. Roquelaure (a pen name for Anne Rice), the general public now has something sexy to talk about. What is the opposite of sexy, however, is the casual attitude with which Fifty Shades depicts violence and consent transgression within relationships. Rice produced a set of erotic fantasy novels that, while having their own set of problems around consent, are otherworldly enough in nature to mitigate the reader’s tendency to draw real-life parallels. She achieves escapism and portrays racy subject matter without setting negative examples for kink dynamics in the real world. Thankfully, we are not all princes, princesses, or anything in between on the gender spectrum, susceptible to curses that induce a century of slumber, living in kingdoms in which we are taken into captivity to serve the court as sexual slaves. Although parallels can be drawn and differences highlighted within several aspects of the two trilogies, the distinctions between them are significant. In this essay, I will explore how each trilogy portrays male-dominated power exchange, marriage, sex-negativity, and levels of realism to demonstrate the problematic elements of Fifty Shades, and how Beauty has managed to circumnavigate them, lacking the “beast” of social norms around relationship abuse.

The development of a singular power dynamic, of Christian Grey and his control of Ana Steele, drives the storyline in James’s books. Grey is a rich, powerful and privileged man who uses his wealth and influence to steer Steele first into his bed and later into a committed relationship. He exerts his privilege over her with the purchases he makes for her (a car and a laptop), by seizing control of the company she works for, and by tracking her location through the cellular phone he gives her. He wants her to submit to him completely and allow him to dictate what she eats, the birth control she takes, and what she wears. As Downing emphasizes, “The idea of the woman who is initiated into BDSM by a more experienced, often older man is a long-standing and somewhat ubiquitous trope in both fiction and first-person confessional accounts.” (96) In The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, the protagonist — Beauty — has many trials and tribulations, and endures oppressive systems of control exerted over her from the start. We get a clear sense of her experience in the beginning, and later we are introduced to the perspectives of others, namely Alexi, Tristan, and finally Laurent, which provide us with a myriad of different power dynamics amongst several gender configurations and sexualities. Beauty is under the control of first the Prince and later Mistress Lockley, prior to her kidnapping by the Sultan. We witness snippets throughout the three books of the experiences of the three men Beauty encounters intimately in a slave setting, experiencing a variety of submissive roles amongst themselves and with others, and some dominant ones, eventually. Ziv writes, “In particular, the work does not problematize gender relations: its main erotic force does not hinge on the power differential between women and men.” (68) This array of power exchange levels the playing field and normalizes alternative relationship styles in a more sexually egalitarian manner.

One example of sharp contrast between the two sets of books is in their treatment of kink within the parameters of marriage. When Christian proposes to Ana in 50 Shades Darker abruptly to prevent her from leaving him again, he is blatantly motivated by controlling her and the situation. Ana requests time to think about it, and by the end of the book they are engaged. 50 Shades Freed begins with them having a long honeymoon in Europe. The marriage depicted is one of compromise; Christian has moved past his tendencies towards kink in exchange for a long-term relationship with Ana. Yet, all of the language used around their marriage depicts ownership and possession, suggesting a imbalanced power exchange in Grey’s favour. At the wedding altar, Christian whispers “Finally, you’re mine,” as they kiss. (20) Beauty and Laurent are the perfect match in Beauty’s Release, “and a good deal happier, I think, than anyone else could ever guess”, Beauty claims at the conclusion of the text. (238) Laurent rides a horse to her upon discovering she has not accepted the proposal of any suitor since she left the possession of Queen Eleanor, returning to her own kingdom at her parents’ demand. There is a strong possessive element in the way these two interact as well, and Beauty craves that possession as much as Laurent does. “I never dared dream of this moment” (235) Beauty says upon discovering Laurent is there to whisk her away as his wife. Leading to this point, every indication is given that Beauty wants to be dominated and controlled. She had been rescued from the possession of a Sultan, and was to be sent back to her family when she arrived at the Queen’s kingdom. But she raged against this — against the clothes she was given to wear, and against being released from her captivity. Her marriage with Laurent was for her a true release from what she would not accept: her freedom. In contrast, Christian Grey inflicts control and possession on Ana throughout the 50 Shades trilogy to her dismay and discontent.

Sex-criticism is making its way into mainstream media as consent becomes a widely discussed point of advocacy, and more and more, equality is being sought out in the bedroom by all genders. In North America, at least, there seems to be an outcry for freedom, and a space to choose to participate enthusiastically in sexual activity with the uprising of consent culture. On college campuses, students are once again campaigning that “no means no” and that people should be able to safely move through their environments without risking assault. Heterosexual women are increasingly empowered to seek pleasure as they see fit — autonomously, not as objects meant to please men.  Dana Goldstein writes, “asking for what you want in bed is a feminist political act.”  In Fifty Shades, Ana is introduced to us as a virginal college graduate; she is portrayed as young, inexperienced, and powerless. Since the books are from her point of view, we are privy to her stream of consciousness which reveals her apprehension around Christian’s domination of her: “I shake my head to gather my wits. My heart is pounding a frantic tattoo, and for some reason I’m blushing furiously under his steady scrutiny. I am utterly thrown by the sight of him standing before me.” (46) For her part, while Beauty is stripped of her autonomy within the first chapter, the inner dialogue we hear suggests that even though she expresses fear of her situation, she embraces the Prince as her love and her role as absolute. In that fantasy world, sexual awakening runs parallel with enhancement and changing for the better (Rice. 16).

We slip easily into a tale eloquently told, and end up down the metaphorical rabbit hole with escapist literature. In fact, we often disappear into stories, rely on them for the fantasy that they offer, even, as a break from the real world. When the real world is perceived in literature, it is that much easier to escape into its romanticism, to lose ourselves in the fantasy. That is the danger in Fifty Shades. The trilogy was written as Twilight fan fiction: a sexy, risqué adaptation geared towards entertaining those with a more normal life. Escapism is wonderful when potentially dangerous scenarios are evident to the reader. However, James has taken a typical romantic trope and spun it in a very unhealthy direction. There are real men in the world who are powerfully wealthy, own companies, and destructively exert their influence on those around them. There are real Christian Greys prowling our cities. The problem with the example set by James is the normalization of violent behaviour towards women. If stripped of his kink and his money, Grey’s behaviour would land him in jail (assuming an effective justice system). Instead, they are married and live happily ever after, we are led to believe. The tone set by a narrative in which everything works out in the end — even after all of Grey’s reprehensible behaviour — is permissive of violence towards women, of class-based power, and of patriarchy. These are very real problems in our world; to spin a yarn that affirms such behaviour to the general public is dangerous and harmful. In contrast, Beauty’s tale of adventures through castles, villages and palaces of sexually charged debasement is clearly fantastic and other-worldly, and subsequently difficult to draw likeness to real life and permissions for behaviour from.

The hold on society that popular culture has is formidable. The wide availability of information via social media and click-bait style advertisement means that people are influenced by what they see most. When something “goes viral”, it is accessed by the masses and amplified to popularity without much critical thought. Ana Steele represents an archetype that many individuals identifying as women can embrace without much reflection. Indeed, her character is hardly unique. Popular culture frequently shoves the trope in our face: boy meets girl, boy pursues girl, boy convinces girl to submit. While it has perhaps seemed harmless for decades — in books, movies, and other media — it reinforces cultural norms that condone violent relationship dynamics and silence the voices of victims. A hypothetical woman could confide in her friend that she is stalked day and night, her phone is tapped to track her whereabouts, or someone comes to her house unannounced after an argument and forces themselves on her. Any good friend would call the police for her if she would not do it herself. This is precisely what Christian Grey does with Ana Steele, and it is touted as romantic, as a love story, and as her good fortune for being swept up by a wealthy, powerful, passionate suitor. In order to move past such damaging norms toward a society that readily accepts the healthy portrayal of relationships, there must be accountability and acceptance of what is not okay. The Christian Greys of the world must be held accountable, so that the Ana Steeles can realize their own power.

Works Cited

Downing, Lisa. “Safewording! Kinkphobia And Gender Normativity In Fifty Shades Of Grey.” Psychology & Sexuality 4.1 (2013): 92-102.

Goldstein, Dana. On Feminism and Sadomasochistic Sex. The Nation, 16 Apr. 2012. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.

James, E. L. 50 Shades of Grey ; 50 Shades Darker ; 50 Shades Freed.  New York. Vintage, 2012. Print.

Roquelaure, A. N. (Rice, Anne) The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty ; Beauty’s Punishment ; Beauty’s Release. New York: Penguin, 1983. Print.

Ziv, Amalia. “The Pervert’s Progress: An Analysis of ‘Story of O’ and ‘The Beauty Trilogy’ Feminist Review.” Sexualities: Challenge & Change. 1994, 46. pp. 61-75 Palgrave Macmillan Journals.

Polysplaining: an Analysis.

~

PO·LY·SPLAI·N(ING)

verb

1. To take on an authoritative tone and a righteous attitude while explaining to someone how to do polyamory “properly”.
2. To assume one doesn’t understand how to do polyamory and proceed to tell them in a condescending way.

~

Anyone who has attempted any form of non-monogamous relationship knows, right in their brains, that there is no “right” way to do it. There are ways to mitigate the fallout and take care of people in the process, but no real formula for success. Each and every person is different and unique, just the same as each and every relationship is different and unique.

I think about relationships a lot. I read about them, talk about them, write about them, talk about them some more (communicate! communicate! communicate!) and think about them. All. The. Time. With this in mind, I’ve come to some conclusions about personal growth, conduct, ethics, and consideration. I have settled on some ideas. I have come into my idealism. This is important to note because the ideals I have are mine, and based on the way I see the world, and view my place within it and the lives of the people closest to me. I think things, as it turns out, and I think them pretty strongly.

The rub is that a lot of the time, I think I’m “right”.

I think I’m “right” because when it comes down to it, I’m very rarely wrong, but nonetheless, it is a power I only believe I have. That power is fallible, but in my righteousness I don’t see that. I think that because I’m very confident about my self-awareness, and about “my” poly. This translates into a form of “splaining” that really sucks for my partners who are less experienced, or have thought/read/talked about these things less than I have. That gives me a form of power too; it gives me a window within which to educate.

When I’m in “poly educator” mode, I’m not advocating for myself, I’m advocating for ideals. As it turns out, we’re not there yet.

It is often said in our community that relationships move at the “pace of the slowest person”, meaning that whoever is needing more time, space, or care is setting the pace for how quickly things move around them. We hope. I think this principle can be applied to knowledge as well. When you’re a world class swimmer, or you think you are, to shove someone off the high dive after they’ve just discovered water for the first time and tell them they have to be a perfect swimmer RIGHT NOW is not considerate. Thus, patience must be applied, and information shared at the “pace of the slowest person” is a more measured approach, I think.

People are going to screw up. They’re going to make mistakes and not think of the way you see things (they don’t know, unless you tell them, and they still translate that to their lens…). The experienced poly people owe it to their new-to-poly partners, and to themselves, to be kind and have compassion through this process. We have all been new, and we know it’s hard. We just found a gold mine of life choices and we’re excited, until we realize we’re tripping, and taking out people as we fall on our faces. Everyone has been there.

The silver lining occurs when we find our footing, get it right(ish) and make progress within ourselves to be better. Being present for that as someone else goes through it is more rewarding than we may think as we’re nursing our wounds after our partner just screwed up. “Minding the Gap”, as Eve Rickert and Franklin Veaux in their book “More Than Two” mention in reference to Brené Brown’s “Daring Greatly“, is important. There is space between where we want to be, ideally, and where we are presently. Righteousness expects “idealistic” poly, not “doing the best i can right now” poly.

It is not easy being “right” almost every time for yourself, and watching people you care for find out where their “right” is the hard way. This goes with the other “prices of admission” in non-monogamous relationships, right next to communication and self-awareness. In between these two necessities is forgiveness.

The State of Embrace.

I want to bring up something that occurred repeatedly for me over the course of this year’s regional Burn. I’m going to attempt to shed some light on my process through these occurrences so as to hopefully open up the floor for discussion around a simple adjustment in standards.

Hugging.

I got hugged a lot this weekend. A lot of the hugs were welcome and an established part of greetings from known people whom i love, and love me. There was a percentage of hugs that were from strangers, and even a percentage from people i straight up do not care for. I was left with a myriad of emotions, a few assigned to each hug. The feelings i had post-hug ranged from radiant warmth to icy cold running up and down my spine. While the latter was a rare, more extreme situation (i’m still a little shocked, i was pretty damn sure my dislike was mutual), I want to map out for you the more neutral, but still not awesome, hug.

I’m so down to hug the people i know, like, and want to physically touch. Generally speaking, and particularly when it’s been a couple days since i’ve seen the inside of a shower, I do not want to hug a person I just met. That doesn’t mean I’m unfriendly, or cold, or unkind. It means in that moment, I haven’t decided if the person walking towards me with their arms outstretched is safe because I don’t know them. I haven’t had the opportunity to have more interaction than “hey, may i ask what your name is?” or some trivial banter upon passing each other on a path to somewhere fun. It means that when I introduced myself, my outstretched hand is indicative of the sort of physical contact that is acceptable to me in that moment. It means don’t hug me yet. Further, if I take a step or two back as you keep coming in for the embrace, I’m doing my damnedest to politely let you know I’m not into the hug that is about to happen anyways. In that split second between the realization that the hug is about to happen anyway, and it happening, I lose my voice. It’s gone. It means that once that person has wrapped their arms around me and let go, I feel let down, and give myself a bit of shame for not saying anything sooner. In short, if you hug me after i’ve done what i deem to be a polite series of preventative measures to avoid physical touch i’m not ready for, I land in a place of self-disappointment and self-deprecation.

It sucks. I’m pretty sure any stranger who hugged me actually had no intention of making it suck for me, but here we are.

I’m not suggesting everyone feels the same way I do, at all. I’m suggesting that there is importance in taking pause and think about physical touch, and the effect it has on people, which can be vastly different from one person to the next. If we want to show compassion and kindness to people we meet, we must think before we impose ourselves physically on them. I don’t think many people would be put out by a simple “hey, are you into a hug right now?” query beforehand. It takes 3 seconds to say. This particular version is 8 words, 9 syllables. That 3 seconds of your consideration could prevent a sinking feeling, doubt, or self-shame for another person. Isn’t that worth it?

I’m also suggesting that asking is a gift we can afford easily.

It allows a person to make a decision about what is okay for them in that moment, and gives them space to vocalize it. With that gift, we give people power and autonomy. This community has a potential for extreme kindness, compassion, and care. We apply that care to our environment by leaving no trace of our presence, so why can’t we apply this care to the new faces we see in social spaces? Why have i seen so many cling to the idea that without that extra step of asking, we’re upholding some sense of free love that would be so much freer if it were with consent? Treating a hug like a gift must come full circle, in that if the gift is unwanted, it is now an imposition. With an unwanted hug, something is extracted, not given.

Last I checked, one of the principles is Radical Gifting. I consider this to include the gift of space to choose for ourselves the level of physical contact we want, without judgment. That gift could elevate this community to something more inclusive, more compassionate and more kind.

Isn’t that worth it?