Sextravagana! Not Letting Religion Rule Secular Sexual Ethics

Over the weekend, Thrack and I attended the wonderful “mini-con” Sextravaganza put on by the local Secular Student Alliance affilitate, Secular Humanism Inquiry and Freethought (SHIFT) at the University of Utah. It was awesome and I’m glad we went. I do wish there had been more people there, but as Greta Christina put it, it was competing with the “biggest football game in all human history.” (Rivalry between the University of Utah and Brigham Young University is too deep to be ignored here.)

SHIFT logo

For an event that was expected by religious conservatives to be somewhere between vile orgy and pushing “erotic whimsys,” I fear that permanently offended religious people seeking shocked titillation, Sextravaganza would have been a terrible disappointment to them. I’m almost sad that no such huffy people showed up to protest or express their displeasure. But I suspect deep down they feared learning something too much to come and glare at us all disapprovingly. And there was so much they could have learned.

Of the three speakers at Sextravaganza, I had only heard of one. In fact, if I wasn’t already such a big fan of Greta Christina, I might have missed this event altogether and that would have been a shame.

As SHIFT and other SSA affiliate groups handed out the programs, the first thing that Thrack noted and pointed out to me is that organizers took the time to put a clear and simple harassment policy where everyone would see it right on the back. After the months and months of willfully ignorant shitstorm surrounding the simple request that atheist cons take sexual harassment seriously, it was refreshing and delightful to see the issue handled easily with no fuss. Contrast that with the adversarial and secretive approach at this year’s TAM when victims were surveilled without their consent following any problem. It’s wonderful to show that even for a small event with three speakers and a panel discussion, people can to do it right:

Sexual Harassment Policy, See, wasn't that easy?

What’s more it was wonderful to see that women’s voices were not only considered but valued; you could tell by the panel composition (two women one man) and the fact that the audience had slightly more women than men. The whole purpose was to give a contrasting secular view to sexual ethics and you couldn’t differentiate yourself more clearly in a year when an all-male panel of (partially-celibate) religious leaders was considered experts by congressional leadership.

Dr. Lisa Diamond

The first speaker, Dr. Lisa Diamond, is a professor of psychology here at the University of Utah (in Utah, it’s usually just referred to as “The U” as if there were only one). Dr. Diamond specializes in sexuality and relationship development in adolescents.  Her book, Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire (which Thrack bought at the event) followed women over ten years from adolescence to adulthood to study how sexual identity and relationships develop. As a speaker, Diamond was funny, and jovially self-deprecating as she recognized that she was much newer to the discussion than her fellow speakers. And although she acknowledged she is a non-believer, her focus was far less explicitly atheistic.

“I do want to slowly poison and destroy the marriage institution.”

Instead, Diamond wanted to talk about how we have allowed conservative religious ideals about relationships and families to dominate how we present our case for equal rights for same-sex couples. She argues, quite rightly, that by presenting a clean and conservative looking gay couple with kids as the public face, we are buying into the idea that certain types of people and relationships are worthy of protection. Now it’s a strategy that is working and has parallels with other movements, but it has some troubling implications for the long-term because it excludes and marginalizes members of the queer community by default.

And truthfully, I can see a number of different ways in which this has happened in other movements as well.  Just looking at the push for women’s reproductive rights, we have the same problem.  We support women’s right to choose, but no one wants to say that abortion itself can be a good thing; just look at the implications of “safe, legal and rare.”  Why do we have to hedge on what we support?

Our copy of Sexual Fluidity, I haven't read it yet

Dr. Diamond pointed out that for many people, leading happy and full lives means a huge range of sexual and familial arrangements and we should avoid creating any additional stigma for them.  There is nothing wrong with being non-monogamous or single or asexual just for starters.  What’s more, we need to stop making the argument that individual deserve equal rights because they look so much like other happily married straight couples. Diamond said that rather than pushing the idea that marriage is sort of the end-goal of happiness and relationships without question, we need to start having more nuanced discussions about how patriarchal norms are dictating life choices.

Is marriage equality something we need to strive for? Yes.  Is Diamond a fan of marriage? Yes, she’s in one of those not-yet-legal marriages herself.  But should we promote marriage as a state and societal good?  Hell no.

She stated that while she’s happy with her marriage and is absolutely a supporter of marriage equality as a political goal, we should stop working so hard to convince everyone we’re not damaging the institution of marriage, because the institution of marriage should be challenged.  Diamond got a great laugh when she said, “I do want to slowly poison and destroy the marriage institution.”

After Diamond finished speaking, they took a few questions and a short break before Greta Christina went onstage.

Greta Christina

Greta Christina is one of those speakers and writers with the rare talent for organizing their point and evidence so clearly that it looks absolutely obvious.  You find yourself wondering how on earth you didn’t think of explaining ideas that way from the beginning.  It’s wonderful and to be completely honest, a bit intimidating.

Christina has been writing about sex, sexuality, atheism and LGBT issues since 1989 and is a giant among those I consider my inspirations.  I was so excited to hear she was speaking in my hometown because it meant I would be able to get my copy of her book, Why Are You Atheists So Angry, signed.  It’s absolutely one of the best and most clearly written pieces of non-fiction I’ve ever read.  She is, in a word, amazing.

Why Are You Atheists So Angry, Cover Signature!

Greta Christina spoke about the ethical basis for sex that doesn’t rely on supernatural ideas.  If we want to have discussions about secular ethics and move past the idea that there is a supernatural being who “cares who and how we’re boffing,” we need to figure out how we form that basis.  Christina discussed how we need to get past ingrained and religiously based taboos about sexual behavior and start basing our judgments and decisions on what we know and understand empirically.  Religiously based taboos and ideas are often surprisingly resistant to change even when your religious ideas evolve because they come in early and build up personal preferences that range from mild distaste to revulsion.

But Christina argued personal revulsion is a terrible basis on which to make judgment calls.  She calls it the broccoli test.  She hates broccoli with a fierceness I’ve never before encountered: can’t bear the smell to even be in the same room with it, admits to feeling vaguely queasy just talking about it.  But that doesn’t mean that people who eat and enjoy broccoli are wrong.  Likewise sexual tastes are incredibly complex and we simply don’t understand them well enough to even begin to figure out how they develop.

At the core of many, many anti-gay arguments you have nothing more than an ick factor; sometimes it’s more hidden and cloaked in language about knowing what an imaginary friend wants, but often, it’s simply described as unnatural and disgusting.  But it’s far from just gay people (which almost always seems to come down to “ick, ick anal sex!”).  Women who dare to be more open and unashamed about their sexuality (which can include simply admitting to using birth control) are met with the same kind of irrational hostility and derision.  Clearly we have to throw out this entire way of constructing right vs. wrong in sexual relationships.

But that doesn’t mean we’re just drifting along without any foundation and having wild crazy orgies either.  Christina said of course we have a basis for ethical sexual behavior, because “only a sociopath” could fail to see the need for an ethical framework.  So if we’re ignoring the idea of consulting God’s checklist for good and bad sex, what do we use?

  • Consent
  • Honesty
  • Fairness
  • Harm

Simple and no different from any other of our moral guides as happy cooperative and secular members of a social species.  In fact, Greta Christina directly addressed the growing idea that many of our rough ethical frames are a physical intrinsic part of our minds that have been shaped directly through evolutionary processes over hundreds of thousands of years.  Christina had a small tangent about materialism.  Because not only do we own our bodies, but to a materialist, we are our brain and body as it interacts with the outside world.  Everything we are is governed by interchemical interactions.  And far from being bleak, that is jaw-dropping and inspiring.

Christina talked about how incredible it is that you, as a random and infinitesimally unlikely accident of nature can share intimacy and joy with another rare  and precious person so profound that it can take you outside yourself and into someone else.  That we as a species are capable of such amazing transcendence and pleasure is not only wonderful but it also shows our connection to every other person on the planet.  We have common ancestors with every living thing on this planet.  We are made of star stuff.  Christina said that’s so wondrous and astonishing that it made her want to go home “right now” and have sex with her wife Ingrid.  It was adorable and sweet.

Greta Christina also discussed (and during the later panel gave more detail) about how ideas we have about sex really come down to taboos.  Which at least partially explains how inconsistent religious guidelines for sexual behavior are both internally and between different faiths.  She explained that as we understand taboos psychologically, they are a human attempt to exercise controls over important and emotionally powerful areas in our lives such as food, drugs, sex.  We set up social taboos that in this country you eat bugs, and in this country you don’t.  Alcohol is safe and good as a drug and marijuana is dangerous and bad.  This type of sex is good and this type is bad.

But if people have some psychological need for taboos, that doesn’t mean we need to rely on the crutches of religion to form them.  Christina suggests we get rid of the old ones and start building taboos based on secular ethical principles.

She was wonderful, giving us a set of tools to build a better evidence-supported framework as an alternative to religious ideas.  And I think it is telling that not a single person could immediately come up with a question immediately after her talk.  Thrack said, “It’s hard to come up questions when you cover your points so clearly.”

After another brief break, the keynote speaker was up.

Dr. Darrel Ray

Dr. Ray has been a practicing psychologist for 30 years in clinical and later organizational practice.  Earlier this year he launched his newest achievement, The Secular Therapist Project.  Ray is the author of The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture and Sex and God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality.  He went around the room before the event introducing himself and chatting with attendees.  He also complimented Thrack on wearing a shirt with the devil burying dinosaur bones.

Devil Bones T-Shirt

I don’t know how to lead into describing Dr. Ray’s presentation, so I’ll just say it had lots of penises.  Literal photographs of penises belonging to ducks and great apes, and more figurative penises using vegetables to represent  comparative size.  And it wasn’t what I was expecting, but it makes sense.  If we’re going to talk about healthy and natural sexuality without gods, it makes sense to talk about other animal’s sexuality.  It makes particular sense to talk about our closest cousins evolutionarily because you can begin to see how the sexual behaviors and social norms of other apes developed over time.  I’ll say this: I’d much rather be a bonobo than a chimpanzee.

In any event, the simple idea that Ray was trying to explain is that genital configuration can change very rapidly compared to many other systems and that these changes seem to correspond with a species’ types of mating strategies.  Want to know what humans’ physiology suggests?  We evolved as a multi-mate species.  There is no evidence of idyllic monogamous marriages during early homo sapien history.

Darrel Ray questioned why it is we continue to let religious shame about sexuality and sexual desires dictate our actions.  As secular people, we have tons of evidence why religious strictures about sex simply don’t reflect reality and far from being helpful, often cause direct harm.  Ray noted that while many people leave behind their religious beliefs, sometimes they hold onto religious ideas about sexual ethics; as an acquaintance of mine once remarked, we often remain “culturally Christian” even after we’re godless.  Dr. Ray says we need to keep this in mind and redefine our ethics to keep them consistent with our understanding of the world.  As a logical extension of this, he calls himself a “secular sexual.”

Ray felt we can take many lessons from the success we’ve seen in changing social bigotry toward LGB individuals.  That if we come out, and refuse to embrace shame over our sexuality we can move toward a healthier secular society.

After Ray’s presentation, we took another short break before a discussion panel with the three speakers.

Discussion Panel with Dr. Ray, Dr. Diamond and Greta Christina

The Panel

The Q & A largely expounded on or clarified points brought up during speaker’s presentations, but it was also nice to hear how one panelist’s idea would get greater depth or perspective through discussion.  I also can’t say how much it meant to me to see an equitable discussion about sexuality that made it clear just how important and valuable women’s voices are in the discussion.  I think having two non-straight panelists was also helpful in preventing the discussion from being too heteronormative as well.

But the very best moment for me came when someone who works as an educator with Planned Parenthood asked a question.  The first person on the panel to respond thanked him and told him that he was a hero.  The whole room clapped.  It was awesome.

In all, it felt like we barely scratched the surface about you could cover when talking about godlessness and sexual ethics.  Greta Christina touched on it earlier that evening by noting that once you get past irrational taboos, questions of sexual morality can become very complicated.  (For example, if in a relationship, one partner decides that they are finished having sex forever but don’t want their partner(s) to seek sex elsewhere, is that ethical?)  I would love to see more discussions like this that center around fulfillment and consent because I truly believe we can have a much happier and healthier society by fostering this sort of discussion.

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