From My Parents: Learning to Balance Victorianism and The Sexual Revolution

When I told my parents that I wanted to “Eventually, maybe, do research on sexual behavior and ethics,” they weren’t exactly enthusiastic. They had raised me to think for myself, be respectful of differences with others, read books larger than the ones assigned in class, and see the human body as part of God’s intended design rather than a shell of germinated sin. But now, here I was telling them that the child they had raised wanted to devote the next few years to studying sex. Naturally they did what most parents would do. They took a deep breath.

You have to understand, my parents fought against repression before I ever realized that was what they were doing. When my mom found out she was pregnant, her and my father tried to become more civilized, suburban, normal even. Despite their self-imposed constraints, I was indoctrinated into the world “on a steady diet of Fleetwood Mac albums,” a euphemism for all manner of premature maturity. You might fill in the gaps of my early home life from here. While they would certainly not have called themselves hippies, it’s not a stretch for me to call them that. I narrowly escaped being named “Moonbeam,” for goodness sake.

My childhood was tempered with appreciation for nudity in art, an explicit understanding that not all families raised their children in the same way, and the knowledge that my parents were trying to give me something that they never had – a normalized concept of sexuality and anatomy. They taught me the proper name of genitalia by showing me at shared bath time. They framed the crude naked family picture I drew when I was five. Theirs was a parenting style cobbled together – sometimes incongruently – in reaction to the way their parents raised them. Their own childhoods were ones of sharp repression. By way of example, the first time Billy, my dad’s father, ever talked to him about “down there,” my father was 50 years old. Billy asked if my dad had ever, “you know, had a doctor, you know, check… down there for cancer.” They never spoke about “down there” again.

We tend to make promises to ourselves growing up. We swear we’ll raise our kids this way or we’ll never do this. And, in large part, my parents certainly succeeded in that. But when I told them I would be pursuing sex studies, they weren’t sure what to make of this information. I might as well have told them I would be pursing a career in porn. Each prevaricated in their own way, unsure of whether to continue their lifelong (sometimes begrudging) support of whatever mischief I was getting into or whether to verbalize their reservations, even objections. They still live in a kind of tension over the whole thing. When they call to check in on me and ask what I’ve been up to, the honest answer is that I spent the previous evening at a sex workshop in West Hollywood and have been reading a quaint book called, A History or Orgies. And, after a long silence, they will calmly ask how the weather is.

Perhaps this is a bit “Too Much Information” for them. But they know my life is held in balance with research on the social construction of morality, ethical paradigms, and individual religious expression. I’m not California Dreamin’, as one of their records celebrated so long ago.

Through all of these polarities, I have come to believe that we live at the culmination of a great time where the teeter-totter of Sexual Revolution and Victorianism is gently balancing — though it remains wobbly. As actress Anna Paquin recently said in an interview, “The reason I feel like it’s important to talk about this stuff is that the more normal and, frankly, mundane and boring this stuff becomes, I think the better it’s going to be for everyone who is a part of our community.”

A 2014 report by the Center for Disease Control, for instance, states that sexual activity among teens (12-19yo) has been hovering around 46% for over a decade and condom use is similar at 62% for the same period. Fighting, alcohol, tobacco, and drug usage are all on the decline. (1) These may not be comforting statistics, but they’re not the full-tilt debauchery that some might lead us to believe. Instead, it seems that when teenagers are given information about their bodies and feel empowered to make decisions about their sexual practices, they choose to explore in moderation. Sexuality is an important part of human development, and honest conversations create a sense of responsibility – not anarchy.

This is not how many parents see it, however. When my stepsister came out to our family, my stepmother felt it was her fault. She felt she had somehow failed as a mother. My parents, while they accept my areas of study, still tell me to “play safe” and “settle down with a good girl” – emphasis on the good. The truth is, in the months and years that followed the conversation with my parents about studying sex, they have questioned whether they were too permissive with me. They are hesitant to tell their friends and coworkers what I do because it remains uncomfortable for them; an admission that they might have failed in some way to instill the same sense of repression that they grew up with. With this migration toward responsibility, we are seeing a generational shift in how teenagers understand their sense of self, respect towards one another, and responsibility for the environment and world peace. Yes, young people act out. Yes, they send “dirty” text messages and Snapchats. Yes, they will look at porn. And yes, they may very well have sex. But contrary to popular thought, the current generation has not been seduced by loose morals (at least not at a macro level), but aims to be even more moral than their predecessors. They are constantly trying on new identities, exploring their sexuality, and — without honest conversation on this topic — they will naturally gravitate towards whatever is readily available. Were we any different?

It is this adaptation to new circumstances and new environments that creates divisions in how we see and understand the world.  This shift is one that Evangelical Christianity has feared for several decades. When sex is discussed – be it sexual practices, orientation, and behavior, or frequency, fantasies, and lingerie, or simply the acknowledgement that something happens between two consenting adults – conservative sensibilities are immediately incensed because it disturbs a pristine vision of the world they want rather than the one we actually live. We’re not in Heaven or Hell; we’re somewhere in-between.

Looking back a generation or two, Billy Graham is a man that many Americans respect. (2) Even those antagonistic to Evangelicalism are typically quick to exclude Graham from their incendiary remarks, as his message has been so keenly focused on the “basic” message of Christianity: God’s love made manifest in Jesus Christ. This is a message that I (sometimes reluctantly) support – liberal though I might be. One of the few instances of Graham departing from this message was upon the release of the Kinsey reports in 1948 and ’53. At those times, Graham condemned the largest scientific study to that point, believing it to be an affront to the “virtue, decency and modesty” of “millions of born-again Christian women in this country.” (3) Kinsey’s reports now seem elementary; an incomplete testament to the true scope it hinted at. People have sex, and it’s not always “missionary.” (4) Though many have sought to dismiss the work of Kinsey and his colleagues, they remain benchmarks in studies of American sexual behavior. Yet Graham’s dogged criticism, well-intentioned as it might have been, obscures a truth: even good Christian grandmothers were once interested in sex the same way we are today. And sometimes, Grandma got a bit “freaky.” We are not that different from previous generations. If anything, we are perhaps more forthright about it, but very little has changed in our behavior. As the song goes, birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it.

And now Christianity finds itself once again on similar ground. Those first pioneers who took a risk to say that sex was good (people like Kinsey or Masters & Johnson) are like those today who have said gays should be welcomed in churches. Pioneers have been often marginalized and branded “heretical”, if not the more gentle “liberal.” Reluctantly, common sense persevered through a generation of impressionable young minds who have difficulty reconciling the sharp criticism of the good (and often more moral people that they know and love) as immoral.

But may we not be hasty to draw conclusions just yet. History does not afford us that opportunity and even the liberal persuasion of a generation is likely to gentrify, like my parents. The adage is indeed true that we are likely to become our parents one day, once the routine of paying taxes, minivan hustles to school and sports, and the promise of catharsis at the happiest places on Earth become comfortable. Granted, my parents are mildly “accepting” of my work but they wish a “stable” life for me. Their own interests have turned to things like grandkids, the revolving door of women I see, the workshops I go to, and the articles I publish which are not suitable to stick on the refrigerator — even if they are not a far cry from those hazy Fleetwood Mac afternoons flipping through motorcycle mags, admiring God’s handwork saddling man’s handiwork. Which is why, idealistic as it may be for now and knowing that circumstances change, I believe reviving well-trod conversations, engaging in dialogue, and keeping a keen eye on what actually is rather than what civil and religious leaders would have us believe is a keystone to creating a better future for subsequent generations – not because we can create a better society with better statistics (5), but because when honesty and moral convictions are held in tandem, we find a way to not only self-regulate but to understand that choices are never as simple as right and wrong.

This would be a good place to stop, a nice “high mark” to end on, only I find it helpful to make one more point. Though my parents raised me to think for myself and trusted my judgment, they also raised me on a strong and steady diet of the Bible, that great enemy of rationality and culture. Though “hippies” in practice, they were not as permissive as one might imagine. That is, their exposure of the world to me also included difficult ideas with which I was encouraged to grapple. Instead of the feel-good, safe stories of scripture (6), they taught me to see behind the cosmetics. David, a man after God’s own heart, fell subject to his own desires with another man’s wife, but before that he had a decidedly bro-mantic relationship with Jonathan. One of Jesus’ best friends – some say his wife – was a former prostitute. Paul, the pillar of Christian ethics, was a traveling executioner.

Without defaming their character, I think it is a safe statement to say that the polarized “right and wrong” so popular and misapplied in pulpits today is not as easy as some pastors make it out to be. “Living biblically” is a difficult task even for people who are in the Bible. Intuitively, we know this but are conditioned to refuse admitting it to ourselves.

In reading scripture, much like having sex, there a responsibility that we must periodically check-in on, intentionally develop, and make concerted efforts to be honest about. This is, I know from experience, quite destabilizing. But whether our discussion is about sex or scripture, the only way we can live honestly is if we are to talk honestly. Not lip service and vaporous promises. Not councils and conferences where we agree to talk again later. And not writing books which promise God’s love so that we can later condemn. Rather, we must have blunt and honest discussions about what it means to be sexual beings in the shadow of scripture; part of God’s creation with a responsibility to each other.

(1) - As always, how we read statistics may be in question, so I encourage you to see the latest CDC reports on adolescent health and sexual behavior at CDC.gov.

(2) - His son, Franklin Graham, is another matter altogether.

(3) - The Kinsey Institute reports on Graham’s reaction under the article, The Development and Publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female: “The Kinsey Reports” of 1948 and 1953 at http://www.kinseyinstitute.org/about/earlycontroversy.html. For Graham’s own words on Hour of Decision, please visit http://prod-dep.billygraham.org/audio/the-bible-and-dr-kinsey/.

(4) - The term “missionary position” became popular because Christians has, historically, taught sexual education along with religious education and other life skills. In those regions where Christians have not taught sexual education (following Graham’s excoriation of all things sexual in public, private, and especially religious) we see spikes in STD epidemics. I believe there is a causal relationship, but of course the data could be read differently.

(5) - This is the fallacy of both Modernism and Post-Modernism, believing that “the next big thing” – be it technology, politicians, or the freshest publication of The New York Times – will be our bright brass ring. As Robin Marie Averbeck puts it, “This conceit, that the fundamental divides creating discord in America are easily corrected by a cool head and an open mind, is perhaps the most central ideological tenet of contemporary liberalism. It’s also a major obstacle to a more egalitarian society.” (“Why I’m Not a Liberal”, Jacobin Magazine, July 2014).

(6) - “Noah likes to make boats, Joseph likes pretty coats.”