Part 2: What I Didn’t Learn At Church.
It frustrates me that I didn’t learn about sex being good and beautiful from the church. While the language is changing in some select spaces, largely the message about sex I heard from the church was conflicted and confusing. It wasn’t even informative. Largely, it was based in an idealized, impractical kind of fairy-tale within a punitive capital punishment-led kingdom.
If the church wants to claim any kind of precedence of understanding humanity and how things work best due to their relationship with the Creator, you’d think we’d be doing a better job of advocating for the good stuff, like sex – being an awesome way of building intimacy. Instead it seems as if all the ways in which sex can break us and harm us is the focus of the Church’s teaching on the subject.
While certainly, there have been some harmful sexual experiences in my life (using broad definitions and refusing to dwell on what’s past), I’ve seen people caught in cycles of fear and denial, refusing to treat sex as something we should be engaging in as liberally as possible.
So instead, I learned that sex was good, beautiful and necessary from an old wise friend over coffee, in his backyard. I learned about sex as a philosophy, not as a practice. He was a musician and a philosopher some 40 years my senior. We became friends when I was 17 years old, he was in his 50s and we remained friends until his death, when I was 32. Here’s a warning – you might find it hard to believe that this was as beautiful and pure a friendship as what I describe. But truly, it was.
Our friendship and conversations gave me freedom to explore previously taboo subjects. Not surprisingly, it helped that he was a nudist at home. I discovered this fact in the most practical way; I visited, he made coffee. We sat down in the back garden of his central city cottage and he took off the sarong he was wearing. I had thought little of his attire on my arrival; it was summer and hot, he was a tennis player and had an older, but well-kept physique. I, having been raised to be unflappable in most situations, simply continued in the thread of conversation. We were talking about writing, as we often did.
So there was I, sitting with a naked man completely at home in his own skin. Nakedness and sexuality, therefore must not be the same. Ideas of modesty and how we clothe our sexuality were torn down, just like that. Yet, there was a certain provocative freedom that would come from this. I being young, curious and in an environment free of evangelical propriety, had free rein to ask questions without the shame and humiliation that so frequently inhibited other conversations.
I should be clear – there was nothing incendiary about our relationship, but eventually it became as natural to talk about our collective human sexuality as it was to talk about good books we had read and interviews we had listened to. He had a long time love and she held no qualms about our friendship.
My complete acceptance of him was a continual matter of wonder, he said. No surprise given his upbringing in the church and knowing I had come from a similar background. So we went, regularly meeting, his body at times like a life drawing class and at other times fully clothed. It wasn’t for a few years that my sexuality came into the conversation.
We were discussing provocation; as an art-form and as a weapon. How people can use tone, voice, words and action to provoke and manipulate certain tensions and outcomes in any environment. I was fascinated by social sex at the time, the way that groups of people arrange themselves around powerful chemistry and charisma.
Even now, the way that we can engage and use our sexuality through social dynamics and in all manner of both corporate and casual settings is a matter of fascination to me. Why am I drawn to touch, embrace and hold some friends and not others? How do I use my body to command attention in the room? These are questions I become more aware of as I use my presence in a room to draw out certain responses, when needed.
My friend said, “Well of course – you’re an expert at it.”
The truth is, I wasn’t then but I’m getting better at it now. Perhaps as I have become more comfortable in my skin. But truthfully, some fifteen years on from this conversation, I’m often still lost as to how to engage my body in the pursuit of outcomes I want outside of the workplace. Which sounds worse than it is, but there is a certain art in how you carry yourself in a presentation or negotiation. In the lounge room or the bar, I don’t want to work that hard.
I replied, “Hardly – I’m not sure I’d know where to start. I’m a theorist by observation, only.” The rest of the words are a bit of jumble in my memory, but my confession of virginity still took him by surprise.
“But surely, after all this time – I mean, it never occurred to me that you might be. You’re so vital and full of life, you need to be having sex. You’ve got to engage, it’s a waste if you don’t.”
I explained to him, much as I have to you, that it wasn’t a matter of choice but rather accident and the occasion had never arisen, so to speak.
There was a pointed break in the conversation while we allowed ourselves to laugh. Then, perhaps the sweetest gift I’ve had to date, he took me by the hand and assured me, it was nearly impossible for things not to rise in the presence of such a vital, living, passionate and inspiring creature as I was. To this day, he remains the only man to tell me so – that I am beautiful for more than my philosophy. I mean, there are plenty of people who appreciate my wit and intelligence, my discourse on theories, music, whisky and theologies. But to tell a woman you find her to be beautiful – it moved me then, it moves me now.
Oh, to be seen. To be affirmed. Not only was he telling me, teaching me that sex was beautiful, good and essential but also that my unique sexuality was good. Most importantly, he recognized that it was within me already strong and with that, freedom came. Not wrong, not rejected, not clumsy or ignorant but good.
From then on, we could and would often speak of sex in much more personal terms than we had before. I wanted to know how sex between two people might heal something and could it also break something? Could it be meaningless physical expression but then the next time be deep and soul-connecting?
I learned that it could be all those things. He gave me rich, clear understanding of the power of being present to one another’s bodies, the sacredness of touch even between friends. And I learned to laugh about sex with him, clothed or not
I learned that I could be a sexual, vital and alive creature; that I could know and understand sex without having engaged in it. Certainly, it raised more questions and curiosity within me but it was good curiosity. A catalogue of experiments and experiences to one day explore. We shared more intimacy in those backyard moments that I’ve probably shared with many. Through it all, sex was a sacred ritual for bringing humans together and building relationships, expressing something of ourselves to another, even in a conversation about it.
Ever since, I’ve been alive in a way that I wasn’t before. Tuned in to how both my body and my soul needs and draws on the philosophy of sex. I saw my friend naked all the time. I watched his body age over 15 years of friendship, before my eyes. I learned that sex is not about bodies, but the body is an instrument of sex, just like the mind.
My friend never saw me naked, although he did invite me to try it, once. By then, it wasn’t intimidating to be asked nor offensive to say no. I had no doubt that he accepted me, flaws and curves and irregularities; and more than that, he called me beautiful.
From Learning to Having.
Long before I realised it for myself, he knew I’d wasn’t suited to a one night stand nor did he want me to be. ‘Promise me,’ he said, ‘it’ll have to be good, ok? Don’t let it be some drunk mother***ker or a kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing, alright? Make sure it’s someone I’d approve of, if I don’t meet him first, ok kid?’
It was his voice I heard in my head the first time and only time I was propositioned in a bar. I didn’t hear a clanging moral bell, nor an angel sitting on my shoulder. There was no devil either, just a friend who knew me and knew a lot about what mattered in the world reminding me what good sex is.
It’s his voice that comforts me when I am alone and feeling unseen, untouched in the world. When what my body craves and what my soul feels empty of is the loudest voice in the room. When I’m trying to make good decisions about dealing with my sexuality, I hear him say again.
‘Hey man, you’re going to be so good at this, it’s outta this world! Someone like you, with all that fire and creativity – unbelievable, man, unbelievable!’
For some people, maybe sex and love is less complicated, but for me, living without both for such a long time, I am full of fear and insecurity. I fear not being any good at it. I fear not being attractive enough or interesting enough. I fear being mismatched in sexual desire with a partner, I fear so many things but mostly I fear that I will never know this deep, body and soul connection with another human being. I don’t pretend that my desire is solely for an intimate and meaningful relationship, or that I simply want hot-blooded sex. I fear that I want more than I deserve or can have.
Then I remember that this intelligent, passionate, wise and slightly eccentric man saw me and acknowledged me, called me beautiful. He didn’t answer all of the question, but he certainly gave me hope that one day I might find expression of all that was within.
What I could admit to him, but few others over my lifetime, is exactly how defined and motivated by my sexuality I am.