Embracing Sexual Incarnation
Sex seems to be all over my Facebook feed these days, and not in a good way. From links to The Gospel Coalition’s recent post asserting sex (especially queer sex) is just “yucky” and that describing it should trigger our gag reflex to Anne Marie Miller’s viral post “Three things you don’t know about your children and sex,” what I’m seeing is an underlying fear of not just sex but the idea of being embodied persons in this world. While The Gospel Coalition’s post is thankfully receiving ample criticism, the comments that accompany the links to Miller’s article run along the lines of “so tragic,” “this breaks my heart,” and “what an awful sex-crazed culture we live in.” Her post attempts to inform parents that contrary to what they may hope, children these days have in fact been molested, have seen porn, and have masturbated. It then encourages parents to help kids overcome such sexual sin and find release from shame.
I cringed reading the article. What does it say about how we view sex and our bodies when masturbating and discovering that one is a sexual embodied creature are cast as as evil and horrible as child molestation? When the natural sexual impulse is equated with damaging and toxic sexual behavior, it becomes impossible to have a healthy conception of sex or one’s physical body. Yes, there are some disgusting and evil things being done to children in this world that they need to find healing from, but I would argue that embracing themselves as incarnate, in the flesh, beings is not something that needs to be fixed. In fact, the opposite is true. It is when we deny our bodies and refuse to embrace our flesh that we become broken.
When I spoke on this topic at the Wild Goose festival recently, the first question I was asked was from a man who wanted to know how he could embrace the body and yet not look at women as objects of sexual attraction. In some ways I applauded his impulse. Men these days are becoming more aware of how demeaning it is to reduce women to mere sexual objects for which I am grateful. Yet in the sex-shaming culture that we live in, the alternative to reducing women (and men) to mere objects is to reject their sexual embodiment and instill a sense of guilt about our natural sexual impulses. My response to him was that it is just as demeaning to refuse to acknowledge the sexual embodiedness of another as it is to reduce a person to merely that. There is nothing wrong with being sexually attracted to other people, to find them desirable. Desire isn’t the issue; it is what we do with that desire that matters. Acknowledging and affirming that desire is one thing, letting that desire control you to the point that you do damage to yourself or the other person is toxic.
For when we repress our nature as sexual beings, we cease to be our full selves. This does not mean we must all give into every sexual impulse or desire we have, but acknowledge that they are a vital and normal part of who we are. The proponents of a theology of embodiment argue that in order for people to understand themselves (or God) they must do so from the sensual position of being in a body. As James Nelson argues in his book Body Theology, if the incarnation (the being in the flesh) is understood more inclusively,
“Then the fleshly experience of each of us becomes vitally important to our experiences of God. Then the fully physical, sweating, lubricating, menstruating, ejaculating, urinating, defecating bodies that we are—in sickness and in health—are the central vehicles of God’s embodiment in our experience.”
One cannot be whole unless one moves beyond assumed divisions of the mind and body and stops despising the body, even the sexual body, as sinful or an embarrassment.
I affirm those wanting to bring healing to children who have been hurt sexually, but I fear that teaching them to despise their body and deny its natural impulses will be equally as damaging. A deeper, more loving response would be to help youths (and adults!) accept and respect their embodiment – even as sexual beings. Instead of shaming children for natural curiosity and forcing them to become bifurcated shadows of themselves, forever filled with unease and guilt about any form of sexual impulse, we can love them by introducing healthy, life-affirming ways to discover that integral aspect of themselves. As Rita Brock writes in Proverbs of Ashes
“Love is most fully incarnate when human beings are present in many dimensions of themselves—physically, spiritually, emotionally, aesthetically, and intellectually present. Physical love is an important dimension of eros, a life-sustaining power that finds expression in many relationships. The love of flesh includes birth, care of the dying, nourishment of children, and tender affection, as well as sexual intimacy. The more present human being can be to each other, as the fullest selves they can be, the more complete the love.”