Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sex, the Media, and the Single Minister

The clergywomen world is all abuzz right now over an article published in Marie Claire magazine about a young, single minister and her love/sex life.  Most of the buzz I've heard has been negative.  I heard certain lines from the article quoted before I read it, and I have to admit, my reaction was mostly of the "What the hell was she thinking?" variety.  Choice quotes include one about "itching for sex day and night" and fantasizing about Edward Cullen from the Twilight series, and a mildly snarky comment about being set up with a church member's son who was a drug addict.  Please forgive me if I don't get the quotes exactly right; I read the article today but then decided against giving money to Marie Claire.

So, I read the article, and I did have that initial gasp of shock - even though I knew what was coming.  Why, I wondered, would a minister publicly say that she was itching for sex?  How would her congregation react to such a vivid self-disclosure?  Was it really possible that any self-respecting adult woman would confess fantasies about a character in one of the worst books ever written?  Didn't she realize that slamming a parishioner's son in a national magazine was a breach of trust?  Did she tell her congregation that she was doing this article?  How would they react, even if they knew it was coming?

Then I thought more about what it would be like to be put in this situation - to be asked to speak publicly about a taboo subject.  Single ministers aren't supposed to have a sex life, and we certainly aren't supposed to talk about it.  But this woman had an opportunity for a voice in a women's magazine, one that generally promotes very little in the way of sexual ethics.  She had the opportunity to speak as a woman who dates, who is looking for love, who has very real desires, but who is abstaining from sex until she is married.  She also had the opportunity to present clergy as real people who face the same decisions as others.  What would I say, given the same opportunity?

Well, I like to think that I would have been a bit more cautious in some areas, but frankly, I have stuck my foot in my mouth plenty of times in public forums, so who knows?  I like to think I would have been more aware of how the media can twist the things I say, but I'm eight years into ordained ministry and have learned from being burnt.

I would have been trying to say that clergy women are much like other women.  I might have said that by giving a pop culture reference that I thought others could relate to (and other bloggers would likely have judged my literary choices), describing a typical end-of-date scene in a car, or making a humorous comment the low points of being fixed up.

I would have tried to say that it is possible in our hyper-sexualized culture to set limits on ethical sexual behavior.  The woman in the article said it by describing how, despite her strong urges, she abstains from sex because of her vocation.  She did it by using the example of having a a disorder that caused her to have a higher than normal sex drive.  If I were trying to talk about sexual desire in a way that would limit repercussions from my church and denomination, I might think that describing it in the context of a health condition that I couldn't control would be a safer than usual way to go.  Since I don't have such a disorder, I'm not sure how I could possibly reveal anything remotely interesting without subjecting myself to critique and possibly disciplinary action.

Which, come to think of it, is why I didn't respond to the call for people to be interviewed for this article.  But I can see why it is appealing to speak about something that is so frustratingly hidden.  I'm glad it wasn't me in this article, but I'm also glad that there was something published in a major magazine about the weirdness of being a single clergy woman: dating, often with strangeness, or not dating because it's nearly impossible to find someone who is okay with your vocation, dealing with normal sexual desires, making decisions based not only on our own wishes and values but also on the expectations of our churches, and hiding major portions of our lives because they might compromise someone's idea of what a pastor should be.  I hope the woman in the article is not being hit too hard with consequences from her church, and that she's finding grace in the midst of all the criticism that is floating around.  I hope we can engage the things that were said in the article, not necessarily giving wholehearted approval, but using it to think hard about how we might address the same issues.  This embodiment thing is a struggle for all clergy, and women seem to bear more than our share of the weight, so it seems like the least we can do is bear it together.


  1. I completely missed the call for participants...I vaguely remember something in my spam folder or that I tossed out of my mailbox, but I couldn't say it was for this article. I haven't read it, only reactions, and I have to say that I a) suspect the Marie Claire "writer" took some liberties with things that were actually said, AND b) I think the clergywoman in question was both brave and stupid. To be careful in how you word things, or in the level of disclosure you choose to participate in, is a good thing and, particularly on this topic, could really have furthered a conversation that seriously needs to happen. Instead I think people are hung up on how much she shared and how vulgarly that's been written, and how inappropriate that is, when we should be focusing on the TOPIC itself.

  2. I agree on both of those points, and I think that smarter disclosure would have accomplished more in terms of furthering the conversation. But it is hard to know how much her words were misquoted or misused, as that seems to be par for the course for most "journalists." Aside from the itching for sex comment, however, I didn't think the article was at all vulgar, and I think some people are overreacting. I wonder how much of that is our own desire and inability to speak freely about this subject.