"Less shame, more orgasms” is the light hearted, but philosophically weighty, tagline my friend Kim came up with for a class on spirituality and sexuality we are crafting together. A sex and intimacy educator with a Ph.D. from Georgetown, she unearths the ways patriarchy and racism affect our ability to experience pleasure and embodiment. So, we decided to tackle the ways elements of our outer lives — like race, gender, religion and politics — twist our internal lives into a morass of repression, and search for pathways to liberation.
This topic is top of mind as we are on the cusp of Lent, a 40-day season leading up to Good Friday in which churches ask congregants to give up various pleasures in order to focus on Jesus’s sacrificial deeds. By abstaining from bodily enjoyment, we are supposed to progress toward the goal of “conquering the flesh.”
In the dualistic ideology of Western Christianity, “the flesh” means the prompting of our bodies. Saint Augustine, the most influential theologian ever, was deeply convinced our bodies were cesspools of vice and immorality. He wrote the doctrine of “original sin,” which is the idea that we are born into a cycle of sinfulness. He believed original sin was literally transmitted into us during the moment of male orgasm, because that is when the animal-bodily self reigns completely over the angelic-rational self. His moral theories are still dominant in this country, where it is seen as a virtue to silence the wisdom of our bodies and stay in our heads at all times.
Authorities benefit from bodily repression.
Kelly Brown Douglas, a womanist theologian, writes, “Sexuality is employed as a tool to garner and maintain patriarchal, racist, classist, heterosexist privilege and power.” Demonizing the body and stigmatizing sexual pleasure serves to create more obedient children, workers, congregants and citizens. In my past as a zealous activist and pastor, I gained intimate experience with ideologies of martyrdom. The sexual shame among religious people is so well established I do not need to make a case for it. There is a permanent Lent-like culture of self-denial that pervades many movement communities. We need womanist, feminist, mujerista and queer critiques of the system to understand how our personal liberation is tied to our collective liberation.
We need to live in rhythms of collective care, and self care. We need to rebel against political tyrants, and the self-policing tyrant in our own minds. We need a society where everyone can attain basic needs like healthcare and homes, and basic needs of fun and freedom. We need less oppression, more equity. We need less shame, more orgasms.
Rev. John Helmiere is a spiritual director. Contact him at johnhelmiere.com
Rev. John Helmiere is co-convener of Valley & Mountain in South Seattle.
Read more of the Feb. 8-14, 2023 issue.