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THE GREAT ESCAPE – SEX AND LOVE IN AN AGE OF SOCIAL REVOLUTION

A gay theological student in Michael Arditti’s 1993 novel, The Celibate, complains: ‘Love: all I ask is a little love. But all that’s on offer is sex.’ Learning to distinguish between sex and love and to escape the confusions of both is one of the great tasks of young adulthood. I entered adulthood in 1965 in the early years of the so-called ‘Sexual Revolution’. However, it was difficult enough living with the burgeoning pressures of one’s male bodily desires and working out how to contain these as a young Christian without engaging in the courageous act of discussing these things in public.

Surprisingly, it was the local Ministers’ Fraternal in 1957 who arranged the screening of an excellent film on the mysteries of sexual reproduction for our co-ed high school—boys and girls saw it together in the local cinema. I recall teachers being amazed that clergy were showing us ‘the birds and the bees’! The broad spectrum of the church —Anglican, Catholic, or Protestant did not encourage dramatic change —hiddenness was the rule. The power of a Christian shame-culture controlled what was sexually permissible.

The 1960’s to 1980’s sexual revolution came as a welcome escape from the moral constraints of the post-World War II era. The availability of the contraceptive pill in Australia (1961) gave women freedom to control their fertility and thereby set them free to move beyond domestic affairs and contribute creatively as leaders and workers alongside men. Women’s liberation challenged attitudes of male dominance in both church and society—men began to learn to work alongside women as equals. The Stonewall Riots in New York of 1969 marked the beginnings of ‘gay liberation’ in America and Sydney and its annual Mardi Gras parade became the gay capital of the western world. The decriminalisation of same-sex genital activity amongst men in the UK and eventually in the Australian States led to a visibility of partnered ‘out’ gay men and lesbian women at all levels of society. Twenty years later, the first deaths of gay men from HIV/AIDS related illnesses brought the period to an end.

There has been great merit in some of these transformations that mark our escape from the constrictions of a Victorian era hypocrisy, but not without cost. Yes, the sexual revolution brought new freedoms but it also brought the break-down in marriage and family life, the rise of divorce, and a self focus that added to a growing individualism.

The growth of the advertising industry has led to an idolatry of the human body, especially the female body, and the availability of the internet has increased both the use and the production of pornography. Put briefly, the sexual revolution of the 1960’s to 1980’s has led from freedom to captivity for many human beings throughout the world. The sexual revolution did not reveal the dangers and ‘disease’ of sexual abuse or prepare that generation — my generation — to be aware of what was happening under the guise of celebrity status or welfare care by church and state.

Within the Church, theologians such as Norman Pittenger (Time for Consent and Making Sexuality Human 1970), James B. Nelson (Embodiment 1978) and Rowan Williams (The Body’s Grace 1989) brought a fresh focus to the discussion of sexuality within the church. Williams critiqued the tendency for everything in relationships or friendship to depend on sex. ‘Sex is risky and grace is not discovered by all; and there is something frightening and damaging about the kind of sexual mutuality on which everything comes to depend—that is why it matters to locate sexual union in a context that gives it both time and space, that allows it not to be everything.’ f

 

Brother Bruce-Paul SSF, a member of the Province of the Divine Compassion, lives at the Hermitage of Saint Bernardine of Sienna, Stroud, NSW Australia.page 4 Bruce-Paul