Sex and Taboos in Orthodox Judaism

In the past, I've poked fun at the Catholic church for the logical contortions it goes through to get around the problems it creates for itself with its nonsensical decrees about sex. But the Catholics are far from the only sect that has laughably ridiculous rules about sex, nor are they the only sect that goes to absurd ends to get around the problems those rules create. So, today I'm going to write about a particularly hilarious example which, like the last one, I first heard about from my lovely and talented wife.

The example I intend to discuss is a bizarre problem, specific to Orthodox Jews, called "halakhic infertility". It takes a little effort to explain what this is, but bear with me - I promise it's worth it.

According to Orthodox Jewish law (halakha, in Hebrew), women become niddah - that is to say, ritually unclean - at the onset of their menstrual period. (Because, you know, God is just absolutely disgusted by those bodily functions that he created.) An observant Jewish husband is prohibited from having sex with his wife while she's niddah. In fact, he's prohibited from touching her in any way, which even includes sitting on the same couch as her, passing a plate to her, or sleeping in the same bed with her.

After her menstrual bleeding has completely stopped, an Orthodox woman must wait seven full days before immersing herself in a mikveh, a ritual bath which removes the taint of uncleanliness. After that, she and her husband can touch each other again. But the problem is this: Some women have very regularly timed periods in which ovulation occurs early in the cycle, around the 12th day. Depending on how long the bleeding from her previous cycle lasts, if you add in the mandatory seven-day wait, it may be that the only time she's fertile is during the period of ritual uncleanliness when she's not permitted to have sex. Hence, "halakhic infertility" (see also). Basically, these families are inadvertently using the rhythm method!

As you can imagine, this dilemma is a source of considerable awkwardness and embarrassment to Orthodox clergy. Why don't they just change the rule and shorten the waiting period? Because of a belief in Orthodox Judaism that older rabbis, being closer in time to God's original revelation, always knew better than modern rabbis and can never be overruled. This also leads to other hilarity, like the belief that it's OK to eat a worm in your apple, despite the Torah ordinarily outlawing the consumption of crawling things, because ancient rabbis believed the worm was spontaneously generated inside the apple. The fact that we know more biology now than the people who originally made that rule doesn't matter at all.

So how do the Orthodox deal with this? These two articles from the website Jewish Women's Health discuss possible solutions. One solution that they suggest is for the woman to take clomiphene, a fertility drug, or other hormones that can delay ovulation. IVF is cited as another possibility. Of course, hormone therapy may increase the woman's risk of cancer, and IVF can be very expensive, but both these problems are viewed as trivial next to the consequences of disobeying the ruling of a religious authority who died hundreds or thousands of years ago.

If these seem a bit drastic, one more solution they propose is that women can bathe earlier than they think, depending on what does or doesn't count as bleeding. As the site suggests, "Some women are embarrassed to approach a rabbi with intimate questions about their staining" (gee, you think?) and therefore delay the mikveh longer than they have to. Another common piece of advice for women is to wear black underwear so they're less likely to notice a blood spot (why God doesn't consider this cheating, I have no idea). But the absolute height of theological genius comes in the form of the following sentence, which I swear I'm not making up: "Women may also be unaware that rabbis are able to rule leniently regarding certain shades of brown..."

Certain shades of brown. How does this work, inquiring minds want to know? Are there official color swatches that rabbis can use to compare and contrast when a woman brings in her stained underwear for inspection? If your rabbi has red-green color blindness and thinks a blood stain is just a green polka dot, is it OK to have sex then, even if the woman herself knows differently? (I wouldn't be surprised if some esteemed and elderly theologian has actually addressed that question, but frankly, I don't want to know, so I'm not going to Google it.)

More so than any other religion, Judaism has preserved intact the primitive taboos of the past. These rules were self-evidently invented by men who suffered from such a crippling fear of contamination, they felt it essential to go to these extreme lengths to avoid contact with even one microscopic particle of blood. All the later elaborations spring from this irrational terror, which many centuries later is still causing difficulty and misery for the families who think they're doing God's will by obeying it. Like all people with nonsensical beliefs, they'd be much better off if they were willing to discard these foolish rules and try living in the real world instead.

August 15, 2011, 5:47 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink29 comments

Sex and Sensibilities

By Richard Hollis (aka Ritchie)

Being a documentary fanboy, I've lately stumbled across a couple of interesting histories on the topic of sex, which have set me thinking about what shape our attitudes to it, so forgive me coming over all Carrie Bradshaw.

Many early European cultures had a decidedly celebratory attitude to sex. Ancient Egyptians practised public fertility rituals which included open masturbation. The homes of ancient Romans were liberally adorned with explicit images of sexual activity and body parts. And this was not pornography, erotic images to enjoy in private; these were lawn ornaments, architectural features, frescos and trinkets to be viewed shamelessly and openly - much to the discomfort of the stuffy Victorians who excavated Pompeii.

Sexuality too was a different concept to the gay/straight/bisexual one we commonly use today. What mattered for the ancient Romans was not who your partner was or who you found attractive, but what role you played. A man was still behaving in a respectable, manly way when he had sex with either a man or a woman, as long as he was the active partner. For men, the only shame to be found in gay sex was that of the passive partner - the man who had taken the 'female' role. The Greeks, meanwhile, openly encouraged gay relationships for their (male) citizens, rationalising that soldiers fighting alongside their lovers would be disinclined to show cowardice, and would fight more fiercely to protect each other.

Many seem to attribute the birth and spread of sexual shame to the rise of Christianity, though I'm not totally convinced it's a fair accusation. I'm no historian, but for my money, social attitudes rarely have such simple and singular causes. But in any case, one of the many oddities that sets Christianity apart from so many of its contemporary religions is the fact that Yahweh apparently fundamentally disapproves of sex and sees nakedness as shameful, rather than entirely natural and (shock, horror) enjoyable! For the Pagan religions, sex was a fundamental, even semi-divine, part of life. For Christianity, it was a barrier, a temptation that led you away from the divine. Early church fathers seemed to only grudgingly permit sex within marriage if people find themselves unable to keep to the nobler state of chastity. In St Paul's words:

I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn. (1 Corinthians 7:8-9, KJV)

Paul's letters to the Corinthians took on an interesting twist when I learned that in Roman times, Corinth, with it's temple to the goddess of beauty and love Aphrodite, was rather notoriously for sexual conduct. 'A Corinthian girl' was an expression for a prostitute, while 'a Corinthian businessman' was a pimp. For me, it makes St Paul's letters sound like an outraged viewer writing in to a television network to complain about the disgraceful scenes of debauchery they've had the nerve to broadcast.

It also surprised me to learn that the church officially opposed not only sex, but marriage too for being a vehicle for sex, until as late as the 12th century. Previously, marriage was not really a religious institution at all, more a personal, business arrangement. But here the church took over the business of marriage and controlled it (and by extension, sex), rather than simply oppose it. Though there remained many prohibitions on sex even within marriage - never on a Sunday or religious holiday, missionary position only (man on top), and never naked. And it was only in the sixteenth century that the marriage oath was made a sacrament that had to be performed by a priest.

Attitudes to sex in the Christian west have remained on the rather prudish end of the scale since. Until today where it seems, if anything, rather commercial. Perhaps it is understandable in societies built on capitalism, where selling is the order of the day. After all, nothing sells like sex, and a sexually enticing advertisement cannot help being instinctively arresting. But though we are surrounded by the PROMISE of sex, sex itself is still largely conspicuously absent from our public culture. There's hardly a film made these days without a sex scene, and though it seems like film-makers are constantly testing the boundary of how much of the sex act they show, actually graphically showing it is still confined to our top shelves, our private cinemas in seedy districts, our secret 'bedroom stashes' and behind proof-of-age paywalls. Public displays of affection are often viewed as rude to others, and nakedness a thing for which there is 'a time and a place' - neither of which seem to be in the public arena. For all its promoting and selling of sex, our modern society still seems to have far more in common with the Christian mindset of sex as something naughty, than with the pre-Christian cultures who were literally shameless about it.

Now even though we atheists hold no belief in God, we cannot help being products of our culture, and our culture is steeped in Christianity. So where does that leave an atheist drawing their own sexual boundaries? Where once I promised myself I would only ever sleep with the one and only man I would ever fall in love with (oh for those innocent days of youth again), I've since found myself in bed with men mere hours after meeting them. Is that something for which I should be ashamed? Is there anything wrong with being a slut?

Certainly there are health aspects to consider. Then again there are precautions we can take which make sex a relatively safe experience. Accidents, of course, happen even when everyone is being responsible, but that is true of practically any activity. We wouldn't consider cooking a meal shameful just because someone might have an accident.

Perhaps I shouldn't have come at this from a religious angle. Perhaps our notions of sex come as much from the 'one true love' fantasies of Disney and fairy stories? But in any case, where do you, as an atheist (or not...?) draw your own sexual boundaries? Are you comfortable with your naked body? Can you look at yourself naked in a mirror without the urge to cover up? Who are you comfortable being naked around? Do you kiss your partner in public? Do you mind when others do? How long do you like to know someone before you have sex with them? And what would you think of someone who would do it in half the time? Share your thoughts.

May 23, 2011, 3:48 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink35 comments

Pro-Family Christians Support Child Kidnapping

Yesterday, I came across a story that was so appalling I had to write about it. It shows the true depths of the Christian right's hatred for gay and lesbian people, and the lengths they're willing to go to - up to and including defying U.S. law - in the name of that hatred. (HT: The Wall of Separation)

The story in a nutshell: A same-sex couple in Vermont, Lisa Miller and Janet Jenkins, were married in 2000 and had a legally recognized civil union. Two years later, they had a daughter, Isabella, with Lisa the biological mother. In 2003 they separated, and a court ruled that Lisa should have primary custody of Isabella and Janet should have visitation rights.

But Lisa Miller moved to Virginia, joined an evangelical Christian church (for reasons that remain unclear to me) and decided that she had been "cured" of being a lesbian. Since Virginia doesn't recognize same-sex unions, Miller filed suit to overturn the Vermont court's custody decision, arguing that under Virginia law her former partner wasn't a parent to their daughter and should have no parental rights. In this effort she was assisted by Liberty Counsel, a religious right legal group founded by Mat Staver, who's also the dean of the law school at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

This didn't go well for the religious right. The Virginia Supreme Court denied Miller's petition, citing a federal bill called the Parental Kidnapping Protection Act which was passed specifically to prevent this kind of forum-shopping. Meanwhile in late 2009, finding that Lisa Miller had been consistently refusing to permit Janet's court-ordered visitations, the Vermont family court overturned its earlier decision and awarded sole custody of Isabella to Janet Jenkins.

The deadline for the custody handover was set for January 1, 2010... and at the appointed time, Lisa and Isabella didn't show up. The police obtained an arrest warrant, and since then both of them have been missing.

That was the last update in this case, until now. It was reported this week that the FBI has arrested a Tennessee pastor, Timothy David Miller, and charged him with helping to arrange for Lisa and Isabella to flee the country and travel to Nicaragua, where he had worked as a missionary. More, according to the affidavit, he wasn't acting alone:

Ms. Miller and Isabella stayed in a beach house in Nicaragua that is owned by a conservative businessman with close ties to Liberty University, an evangelical school in Lynchburg, Va., and whose daughter works at the university's law school, according to the affidavit...

[Mat Staver] said he knew nothing about the accusations involving a law school office assistant, Victoria Hyden, and her father Philip Zodhiates, the beach house's owner...

Much of the evidence in support of the criminal charges and other accusations, the affidavit said, was obtained through court-approved, covert searches of e-mail accounts, uncovering messages from Mr. Miller that appear to arrange the mother and daughter's 2009 flight to Nicaragua and from Mr. Zodhiates arranging to send them supplies.

Let's not mince words: If these charges are true, then the FBI has uncovered an international Christian child-kidnapping ring, a premeditated conspiracy to defy the law and keep same-sex parents apart from their children - and one, moreover, that has close ties to Liberty University and the religious right's political infrastructure. Notwithstanding Mat Staver's denials, I have no doubt whatsoever that even if he didn't personally participate in any illegal act, he either knows where Lisa and Isabella are or could find out if he wanted to.

Unfortunately, it seems that under the relevant law, the most that anyone could face is three years in prison. That's not nearly enough - a religious fanatic who believed he needed to "save" a child from the love of her same-sex parent could easily wait that sentence out and consider it a small sacrifice, and of course, he would be hailed as a hero by the religious right upon his release. If the law allowed, say, 20 years in prison rather than three, that might be enough to make even the most defiant zealot consider cooperating with the authorities - and give him an incentive to name the others who were part of this conspiracy. I have little doubt that the full list of names would be a major embarrassment, possibly even a crippling legal blow, for the Christian right. (I wonder if federal prosecutors have considered using RICO against Miller.)

But most of all, my heart breaks for that little girl, who must be going through intense brainwashing sessions in an attempt to poison her mind against her legal mother. I hope with all my heart that she resists and that she understands the crime that was committed against her. In the name of "protecting" her from exposure to gay people, the religious right has taken her out of the country, torn her away from her friends and family, quite possibly destroyed any hope she'll ever have for a normal life, and is no doubt trying to indoctrinate her into a cult of bigotry and hate. Are these the people who dare to call themselves "pro-family"?

April 26, 2011, 6:46 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink18 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

If I had the time, I'd write a whole post about each of these. As it is, you can probably guess what I would say:

• There are atheists in the military!

And in high schools!

• And for why this matters, see this post on Friendly Atheist, about a study finding that anti-atheist prejudice goes down as atheists become more numerous and visible.

• I wrote a post a few months ago asking about atheist apps for the Android platform. I'm happy to point out that a developer has answered the call.

• On Salon, an account of life with an Objectivist father. It's about time those lazy, mooching 16-year-olds stopped getting a free ride from their parents! (I can't reread that sentence without hearing it in Stephen Colbert's voice.)

• William Lane Craig, Christian apologist extraordinaire, defends the Bible's genocides. But don't worry, he's not completely heartless, as he explains:

So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgement. Not the children, for they inherit eternal life. So who is wronged? Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.

Feel that Christian love!

• Americans United reports on atheists who want to be legally ordained to perform weddings, and have had to file a lawsuit to demand that right - one of the most visible examples of the way anti-atheist prejudice is still enshrined in law.

• On another down note, the Supreme Court issues another horrendous decision further stripping atheists of the legal power to claim our rights when governments unconstitutionally hand out money to churches. Horrendous, but not surprising - this decision has been in the wings since the Hein case. As long as conservatives have a majority on the court, our power to fight encroaching theocracy will continue to erode away. (See also NFQ's excellent, detailed take.)

• But rather than close on that down note, let me leave you with something that's surely worth a few grins: an article on the secret sex lives of students at Seattle Pacific University, a private Christian college. Just try to keep a straight face when you read what the prayer rooms were used for! (HT: Violet Blue, definitely NSFW).

April 5, 2011, 6:32 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink12 comments

The Catholic Church Answers Your Sex Questions

Gather round, readers! I've got a real treat in store for you, because today the Roman Catholic Church is going to answer all your questions on dating and sex. Yes, that's right - if you've ever wanted your raunchiest, most explicit questions about human intimacy answered in full, uncensored detail by a group of elderly white men who are also lifelong celibates, today is the day you've been waiting for.

First of all, a reader writes in with this dilemma:

When pregnant, I have am prone to receiving a type of bacterial infection that can cause pre-term labor, and my first child was born several weeks early because of it.

During my second pregnancy, I read that many doctors recommend the use of condoms during pregnancy to try and reduce the transition of the bacteria... I solicited opinions on a Catholic e-mail list as to whether or not the use of condoms during pregnancy under these conditions would be licit. I assumed that it would be. If I'm already pregnant, I am obviously not trying to contracept, right?

Well, reader, of course you can! I mean, obviously the use of condoms to prevent pregnancy is a grave sin in the eyes of God, but since you're already pregnant, you can't conceive again whether you use one or not. And since your intention is to prevent harm to your fetus, a laudable desire considering the church's protect-the-unborn-at-any-cost attitude, surely a condom couldn't be impermissible under those circumstances. This is just an obvious implication of the church's teachings on... wait, what?

First, Catholic moral theology holds that the marital act includes both a unitive and a procreative aspect and that neither of these may be deliberately frustrated... The unitive aspect involves more than just the spouses giving each other the experience of sexual release. That could be accomplished any number of ways that would not be open to procreation. For the spouses to truly be united in marital congress that is open to procreation, at least some insemination must occur. Without insemination, one does not have a completed marital act.

...For this reason, even when a condom is not being used to prevent procreation, it could not be used on the grounds that it prevents the spouses from being united in marital congress.

Ah, of course. You see, I forgot something very important: the Catholic belief in Sperm Magic. Regardless of your intent, if you do anything during sex that prevents sperm from entering a vagina, you make Jesus angry (and you wouldn't like Jesus when he's angry). But never fear, folks, this writer has the perfect Catholic solution:

While it is necessary for some insemination to occur in order for the marital act to be completed, it does not appear that there is any set amount of insemination that must occur. Some orthodox Catholic moralists... have thus proposed the possibility of using a perforated condom that would allow some but not all of the seminal fluid to be transmitted.

Ha ha ha, perforated condoms!? You've got to be kidding me! That's like a religion that believes driving is sinful but allows it as long as your car has a hole in the gas tank! But surely this is just one kook's ridiculous notion, there can't possibly be a whole community of Catholics who oh come on you can't be serious:

The only morally acceptable way to collect a semen sample for analysis is for the man to don a perforated condom and make love to his wife. The perforated condom will allow some semen to escape, making conception possible, while retaining enough for analysis.

The logic here boggles my mind. If using condoms is morally wrong because it's a violation of God's plan for your marriage, how is it any different to seek medical tests and fertility treatments if you're having problems conceiving? Wouldn't that also be an attempt to subvert the plan God put in motion by making you infertile in the first place? (Note, the Vatican does declare IVF off-limits to Catholics, so clearly they accept this reasoning in at least some cases.)

The Catholic acceptance of perforated condoms is like the Islamic practice of "temporary marriage" - a logical contortion to get around a problem they created for themselves in the first place. The church believes that sex has both a "unitive" and a "procreative" purpose, and that's fine, I agree with that. But what's bizarre and arbitrary is the church's insistence that both those functions must be served in every sex act, and any kind of sex that has one without the other is sinful. This is like saying, "The purpose of your eyesight is both to let you take in beautiful sights and also to help you find your way around. Therefore, it's wrong to look at a painting, because you're using your eyes just for pleasure and neglecting the navigational function of your vision." (The "Catholic" solution, one presumes, would be to only look at actual beautiful landscapes and not mere reproductions.)

One last question for today, and this one, unlike the others, filled me more with pity than with amusement:

The other night... we were lying in bed after the kids were down and started to cuddle. The cuddling got pretty active and one thing led to another and I 'went off' (as we like to put it). I wasn't trying to make it happen, but I didn't really try and stop it either. I am familiar with Onanism and I am not sure if this situation qualifies. I know Onanism is wrong, so if what happened was that, then I would be in a state of mortal sin. But I don't know if it is Onanism if it happens in the context of a husband and wife showing affection.

Like the Christian believer Contraskeptic, to whom I wrote a letter of advice a few years ago, this is a case of a well-meaning person hogtied by irrational rules, made to feel guilt, shame and fear for no good reason at all. And the other commenters in the thread didn't help:

All forms of masturbation are inherently, mortally sinful, even within the context of marriage... you need to go to confession. Today.

When people say that religion gives them peace and happiness that atheism never can, I want to point them to stories like these. This is how so many theists decide what's permitted and what's forbidden when it comes to sex: not by judging whether it causes harm to any other human being, whether it fosters love and intimacy in their marriage, or whether it gives them pleasure and happiness, but by consulting a book of superstitious rules laid down by clerics. And because these rules are so arbitrary, so unconnected to human needs and desires, it puts them in constant fear of accidentally crossing the line and committing some imaginary transgression.

The Pascal's Wager logic, which so often assumes that joining a religion is cost-free, hides the fine print: you will end up paying a price, and it may be a lot higher than you think. How can anyone be truly happy in the mental slavery of a religion that layers on the guilt and threats for breaking such absurd laws? And wouldn't people like this be much happier if they abandoned these superstitious beliefs and instead adopted a rational, humanist alternative sexual ethics?

(HT for this whole post: my wife, the talented and lovely MissCherryPi, whom I didn't believe when she first told me about the perforated condoms!)

March 7, 2011, 6:44 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink101 comments

In Praise of Human Diversity

The Nobel committee has awarded this year's prize in physiology or medicine to Dr. Robert Edwards, a pioneer of in vitro fertilization. Given how long ago this achievement took place, this decision is surely meant to be read partially as a political statement - an implicit rebuke of the right-wing churches that want to deny people the right to exercise control over their own bodies.

And right on cue, the Roman Catholic church stepped in to once again remind us of its existence:

The Vatican-based International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations also expressed its dismay about the Nobel committee's announcement.

Jose Simon Castellvi, the federation's president, said: "Although IVF has brought happiness to the many couples who have conceived through this process, it has done so at an enormous cost. That cost is the undermining of the dignity of the human person."

A 2008 document on bioethics issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith repeated earlier Vatican condemnations of in vitro fertilisation because it separates procreation from the conjugal act in marriage...

Whatever else you can say about them, at least the Catholic hierarchy realizes the implications of their own beliefs. A normal IVF cycle involves the fertilization of multiple eggs, of which only one is usually implanted and the rest discarded - so if a fertilized egg is a person possessing a soul, then fertility clinics would be engaging in destruction of human life akin to abortion. So it makes sense, given their starting premises, that they'd be opposed to that as well. On the other hand, you have to admit that their opposition seems much more perfunctory, compared to the time, energy and effort they spend trying to stop abortion. When was the last time you heard of someone being denied communion for having a test-tube baby, or pro-lifers picketing a fertility clinic?

But regardless, their position is still a ridiculous and irrational superstition. A fertilized egg is not a person, just as an acorn is not an oak tree. Personhood requires sentience, consciousness, thoughts, feelings, and the zygote has none of these. It's a seed from which those qualities may someday develop, but only if a long and complicated chain of developmental events occurs successfully. If that chain of events doesn't occur, the zygote has no more chance of becoming a human being than a swab of cheek cells.

In truth, I find the Catholic church's ranting against IVF more than a little sad and comical. They really haven't advanced at all since the Dark Ages, and their attempts to interpret the world of the 21st century through the lens of a medieval worldview are pitiably ridiculous. Even after everything we've learned about how the mind arises from the brain, and how an intricate genetic program choreographs the development of a ball of cells into a thinking, feeling human being, the Catholic theologians continue to insist that personhood exists solely in virtue of possessing an undetectable supernatural appendage called a soul. This idea is of the same vintage as the belief that the solar system is a set of nested crystalline spheres, and bears just as much correspondence to reality.

But there is one thing about this that's truly offensive, and that's the belief - not unique to Catholics, but found among the hierarchs of most religions - that there is only one acceptable way to live, and that they alone are the authorities who know what it is. If anything at all disrespects "the dignity of the human person", it's telling people how they must lead their lives - only one kind of birth, one kind of love, one kind of marriage, one kind of death that's allowable, and that they're sinful and disordered if they don't conform.

The true nature of human beings is diversity - diversity in who we love, in how we pledge our commitment, in how we organize our families, in how we react to the slings and arrows of fate - and there is more than one way to lead a healthy, happy, ethical life. As long as religious fundamentalists deny this and try to force all human beings onto the one narrow path they deem permissible, they will deserve only scorn and condemnation.

October 7, 2010, 9:22 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink33 comments

Selling Shame: How Christians Profit from Porn

As everyone knows, porn is big business. To cite just one example, ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, recently approved the creation of an .xxx top-level domain. ICM Registry, a company that plans to sell the new domain names, says it already has more than 110,000 pre-reservations, and expects to make over $200 million annually from selling them.

But strangely enough, it's not just godless sinners who are turning a profit off porn. Believe it or not, Christian conservatives have gotten into the game - not to produce or sell porn, of course, but to sell cures for porn. And to judge by the number of groups that are doing this, it's big business for them too.

Of course, ridiculous claims about the health effects of masturbation, homosexuality, and non-monogamy - ranging from hairy palms to insanity and death - have been a longstanding part of religious puritanism. So have pseudoscientific "cures" for human sexuality, from corn flakes to clitoridectomies. In that respect, these modern snake-oil sellers are just perpetuating a long, if ignoble, tradition. But two things set them apart from their predecessors.

First is their insistence that the free and open expression of sexuality is harmful, now that we have ample evidence proving that claim false. Same-sex marriage is a reality in several U.S. states and other countries in the world, and those places have experienced none of the dire consequences that religious fundamentalists predicted. Meanwhile, states that exclusively teach abstinence-only sex ed continue to have far higher rates of teen pregnancy, divorce and STDs than states that teach a comprehensive approach including contraception.

Second, and more importantly, is the fundamental dishonesty of their approach. Puritanical crusaders of past eras, whatever else we can say about them, were straightforward and clear in their objective: they thought sex outside a very narrow range of limitations was evil and wanted to stop people from doing it (see also).

By contrast, today's anti-porn preachers, probably recognizing that this would no longer fly, take a subtler approach. Most of them claim to only be treating pornography addiction - a real problem, albeit not as common as they claim it is. But once they get you in the door, their real agenda becomes clear: to promote an archaic, shame-based view of human sexuality which excludes all forms of sexual expression except the very narrow, restrictive ones grudgingly permitted by fundamentalists, for obvious practical reasons. You can notice it in this article from the Times, profiling one such group: it calls itself "Victory Over Porn Addiction", but teaches its members to abstain from all forms of non-procreative sex, including sexual fantasies and masturbation.

These deceptive tactics are used by religious proselytizers across the board. Consider the "crisis pregnancy centers" which don't offer abortions, but which string pregnant women along as long as possible to keep them from recognizing that, all the while bombarding them with religious propaganda; or the religious conservatives who claim to only be opposing abortion, when their actual agenda includes the banning of all forms of birth control.

This isn't to say that mainstream pornography and free sexual expression is always healthy, of course. As Greta Christina points out, there's plenty about porn that deserves a legitimate critique - in its own way, it promotes a conception of sexuality every bit as shallow and harmful. But the fundamentalist solution - restoring archaic, constricting gender roles; promoting ignorance, shame, and secrecy - is not the answer. If anything, it feeds the attitudes that cause sexuality in society to express itself in harmful ways.

July 19, 2010, 12:30 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink152 comments

The Loving Compassion of the Catholic Church

A few weeks ago, I mentioned briefly that the Catholic church had threatened to pull out of Washington, D.C., ending the social services they provide for thousands of people, if the city council passed a law recognizing same-sex marriage. Well, the council did pass the bill, same-sex marriage is now legal in D.C. (congratulations!), and the church looks set to keep its promise, starting with the termination of their foster-care program. They've also decided to end spousal benefits for all employees, including terminating the benefits of existing employees, rather than give those benefits to same-sex partners.

Happily, as AU reports, this story has a positive ending: Since Catholic Charities has shut down their foster-care and adoption program, the service they used to provide will now be offered by other groups, including the National Center for Children and Families, that will get the public funding the Catholic group used to receive. Well done, Washington, and shame on this despicable, bigoted church that would apparently rather see children go parentless than have to provide health insurance to gay people.

On a similar note, there's this story of a 5-year-old who was expelled from a private Catholic preschool because his parents are lesbians:

In a statement sent to 9NEWS, the Archdiocese said, "Homosexual couples living together as a couple are in disaccord with Catholic teaching."

..."No person shall be admitted as a student in any Catholic school unless that person and his/her parent(s) subscribe to the school's philosophy and agree to abide by the educational policies and regulations of the school and Archdiocese," the statement said.

Editorial note: Does this school plan to expel all students whose parents are divorced? Maybe they should also send around a questionnaire asking parents if they use birth control so they can expel the children of the ones who answer yes. Of course, since something like 90% of American adults, Catholics included, use contraception, this might lead to a fairly steep dropoff in those all-important tuition checks. It seems politically safer to only target members of relatively small minorities for persecution, rather than actually try to apply their own rules consistently.

On the positive side, it seems clear that the staff who run the school were appalled by the open bigotry and hatred of their church superiors - another clear sign that American Catholics are more progressive than their benighted hierarchy:

School staff members, who asked to remain anonymous, say they are disgusted by the Archdiocese's decision.

...Staff members said they were not allowed to discuss the decision after it was made. Some of them said they were disheartened to work at a school that preaches peace and love, but also makes this decision.

A memo to these staff members: As this and the previous story make clear, Roman Catholicism does not preach love - at least not in the unconditional, universal sense we generally think of when using that word. It preaches conditional, selective love - love only for people who are willing to submit to its insane dictates and obey the orders of the pompous frauds in charge - and that's a different animal altogether.

The church's shameless bigotry against gays and lesbians is all the more outrageous considering its own continuing crimes and hypocrisy. I wrote in my last post on the Catholic church that, given the sex abuse scandals in America, Ireland and Germany, it was a statistical inevitability that more stories of child rapists among the clergy would appear in other countries as well. Now similar allegations have been made in the Netherlands. More amusingly, there's this scandal in the Vatican itself:

The Vatican was today rocked by a sex scandal reaching into Pope Benedict's household after a chorister was sacked for allegedly procuring male prostitutes for a papal gentleman-in-waiting.

Angelo Balducci, a Gentleman of His Holiness, was caught by police on a wiretap allegedly negotiating with Thomas Chinedu Ehiem, a 29-year-old Vatican chorister, over the specific physical details of men he wanted brought to him.

And lastly, less amusingly, there's this story. The Catholic church in Ireland has racked up a $14 million bill for victim compensation after letting sexual predators in the clergy run rampant for thirty years, and the Bishop of Ferns, Denis Brennan, is asking his parishioners to pass the collection plate to cover the costs. As the Independent puts it:

In other words the Roman Catholic Church in Ferns is asking the victims of its own bitter failings to pay the price for the crime -- it is a request which beggars belief.

At this point, the church's callousness and hypocrisy has been demonstrated ad nauseam, so this no longer shocks me. The only thing that still surprises me is that a den of vipers like this one still thinks it has the authority to instruct the rest of us how we should treat our fellow human beings. Personally, I think the Pope and his hirelings ought to turn over all the remaining predators to the police, sell off the treasures of the Vatican to pay their court costs, and spend a few decades in sackcloth and ashes before they should even think of venturing an opinion on moral topics again.

Postscript: Although it's not a sex scandal, there was one more story that came out just after I wrote this that I couldn't omit: the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has banned voluntary end-of-life measures in the more than 600 Catholic hospitals and nursing homes around the country. In other words, Catholic institutions will no longer honor patients' living wills stating that they don't wish to be kept alive by feeding tubes if they're irreversibly comatose or terminally ill.

Although the law protects patients from being subjected to any medical treatment against their will, it's easy to see how this decision could be used by Catholic hospital administrators to coerce grief-stricken families and patients who may not be capable of expressing their desires. Even in the best case, it will almost certainly lead to more pointless suffering as patients who don't want to be kept artificially alive try to find another hospital to transfer to that will respect their wishes. We need to publicize the evil and tyrannical pretensions of the bishops, and I suggest this slogan: "If you want to have a feeding tube forcibly crammed down your throat or run through a hole cut into your stomach so you can be kept alive to suffer, then make sure you go to a Catholic hospital!"

March 9, 2010, 6:47 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink27 comments

Common Myths About Polyamory

By JulietEcho

Editor's Note: This piece emerged from the discussion of my recent post on the legality of polyamory. Please welcome Daylight Atheism's newest guest contributor, JulietEcho, who has her B.A. in both Philosophy and Religious Studies and is also the administrator of the Friendly Atheist forum. You can e-mail her at

I've been in a polyamorous relationship with my two partners for over three years now, and it's been great. The only downside: the secrecy. Many people in the US don't even know that plural relationships exist outside of Islamic countries and fundamentalist Mormon compounds. Polyamorous families tend to be very secretive - and with good reason. The religious majority in America considers any romantic relationship that's not between a straight woman and a straight man (usually in the context of marriage) to be sinful and immoral – and people in polyamorous relationships mostly consider silence the safest option, given the risks of losing jobs, reputations and even custody of children. However, bad reactions to polyamory aren't limited to reactions rooted in religion. I'm going to outline what I've found to be the three most common bad reactions to polyamory from non-religious people, and I plan to demonstrate why they're bad reactions.

1. "Polyamory? That's okay, as long as <insert horrible things here> isn't going on."

Underage marriages. Forced marriages. Abusive marriages. Polyamory is just swell, as long as it's not underage, forced, and/or abusive polyamory! While the reaction based on historical connections is understandable, it's a non-sequitur. When you find out that someone is marrying the woman of their dreams, you don't say, "That's great, as long as you don't plan on beating your new wife!" There's a long, horrible history of socially-acceptable violence against women, not to mention the centuries during which they were treated as property. This doesn't, however, mean that we're obliged to point out that it's unacceptable every time we find out about a man and a woman in a romantic relationship. No one should have to clarify that their polyamorous relationship is abuse-free, any more than someone in a relationship with a woman should have to clarify that they don't plan on treating her like property.

Some even argue that we should criminalize polyamory, or never acknowledge poly relationships as a normal part of society, because it would benefit abusers who force underage girls to marry them. This is beyond ridiculous – the fact that pedophiles are out there hasn't led us to outlaw sex, and the fact that thieves are out there hasn't led us to outlaw property ownership. There are still abusive relationships, pedophiles, and forced arranged monogamous marriages all over the world – are these things okay as long as they only involve two people? Should we outlaw one-on-one marriages so that we aren't providing a framework for abusive husbands, forced arranged marriages, marital rape, etc? The solution isn't to penalize polyamorous relationships – it's to crack down on the abuse of women, whether they're being abused singly or in groups.

2. "Those relationships are always about drama/don't last/are dysfunctional."

You don't tend to hear about the relationships that do last, because polyamorous families don't stand to gain anything from going public. You hear about the failed attempts from people who are upset and bitter about bad relationships (monogamous people don't have a monopoly on those), and from cases where there was serious fall-out between groups of friends, etc. You don't hear about the ones that last, because the people involved are generally terrified that they'll lose their kids and their jobs if people find out.

With more factors involved, poly relationships have a higher probability of failing – just like single people are much less likely to get divorced than married people. There's one more person who needs to "click" and more personal dynamics involved. It's hard to find (and sustain) a happy, healthy polyamorous relationship – but once you've got one, the people involved tend to be strong communicators, prioritize honesty and not take the relationship for granted. That's what it takes to make polyamory work.

In the end, to paraphrase Dan Savage, every relationship you have is going to fail – until one doesn't. That's true no matter how many people you date at once.

3. "Telling people that you're polyamorous is over-sharing – it's like telling them about your sex life."

Telling someone that you're dating a man is essentially telling them that you're interested in sex with men. Telling someone that you're dating a woman is essentially telling them that you're interested in sex with women. Telling someone that you're in a polyamorous relationship is essentially telling them that you don't see sexual monogamy as a necessary part of a healthy relationship. That's all. It doesn't imply (and no one should infer) that poly people have group sex, orgies, or have open relationships. It doesn't imply that every person in the relationship has sex with every other person in the relationship – in a way, it gives you less information about someone's sex life than finding out that only two people are dating each other.

It might feel like too much information to hear that someone is in a poly relationship – but that's about your personal comfort zone, not about the objective amount (or type) of information being shared. Many people are uncomfortable around gay couples or would rather not know that someone is gay – and that's tough cookies. People in love shouldn't have to (and aren't going to) go through a constant, public charade so that other people won't be grossed out or offended. No one is going to have sex in front of you. No one is going to ask you to join their poly relationship, like it's a club or something. Admitting the existence of a romantic relationship isn't inappropriate or over-sharing – it's normal.

When it comes right down to it, perhaps the biggest unspoken reason people have for objecting to (or being offended by) polyamory is fear. It's common for monogamous people to fear that a partner might leave them for a polyamorous relationship (or might demand opening up the existing relationship) if polyamory becomes normalized. But if your partner would actually leave you, or demand that you open up your relationship against your wishes, then you obviously aren't on the same page. There are tons of people out there (I'd wager a large majority of people) who want mostly or completely monogamous relationships – and they should find, date and marry other people who want the same thing.

Being honest about whether or not you're truly willing to commit to one other person sexually and romantically for life is ethical and healthy. Pretending to want monogamy (or genuinely wanting it, and then changing your mind and keeping it a secret), and then cheating is very, very common. Perhaps divorce and infidelity would become less common if more people were aware that poly relationships are an option, and if people made a greater effort to communicate their needs and desires. In short: polyamorous people aren't a threat to people who truly want monogamy – any more than relationships with men are a threat to people who are only interested in relationships with women.

Whether polyamorous marriage is ever legalized or not, I'll be more than happy if it's someday considered socially acceptable. There's nothing inherently unethical or offensive about it, and I've been surprised to find out how many polyamorous people I know, once they feel safe enough to talk about it. "Coming out" as polyamorous is currently a frightening, risky thing to do. If a friend discloses a polyamorous relationship to you, I hope you won't react in any of the ways I've discussed above, but rather give them the support and friendship that they need.

Feel free to ask questions in the comments if you're curious about polyamory, and thanks for reading.

December 17, 2009, 6:42 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink80 comments

Flat Earth Follies: The Religious Right's Egg Crusade

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Taking its "life begins at conception" charade from State Legislature to State Legislature, one of the most dangerous political forces in the U.S. is stepping up its crusade for the "rights" of the unborn. Backed by an organization called Personhood USA, the latest offensive from the Religious Right involves a renewed movement to amend state constitutions to establish human rights and personhood status for fertilized eggs. Ever immune to morality, reason, church-state separation precedents and an understanding of the basic laws of biology, the most flat earth reactionary segment of the so-called pro-life movement wants to circumvent constitutional protections for abortion by conferring personhood on fertilized eggs. This would eviscerate the premise that women have a sovereign and singular right to control their bodies by designating rights even before implantation and a clinically viable pregnancy has been determined. For those who have any elementary grasp of the human reproductive process, conception does not automatically result in pregnancy and the majority of fertilized eggs never implant in the uterus. Yet if the egg crusade zealots had their way, these new edicts would potentially criminalize any woman attempting to use birth control pills or IUDs, and jeopardize in vitro fertilization procedures and stem cell research.

Though the egg crusade has failed to gain the imprimatur of the National Right to Life Committee, those who would dismiss such a campaign as too extreme to gain traction do so at their peril. According to the L.A. Times, earlier this year the egg crusaders were able to convince the North Dakota House of Representatives to pass a constitutional amendment on personhood, although it was later vetoed by the State Senate. Colorado voters also rejected a similar ballot initiative 73% to 27%. Yet in California the egg crusaders are collecting signatures and whipping up support for an amendment insidiously dubbed the California Human Rights Amendment.

One of the most reprehensible arguments that the egg crusaders make to bolster their cause is a comparison between their movement and the movement to abolish slavery. Their website cites Joshua Giddings, a 19th century American anti-slavery legislator who held that "God" as "author" of all life grants the inalienable right to life to every being. Following this argument it is unclear who is exactly "enslaving" pre-implanted fertilized eggs. Is it potential mothers who arrogantly lay claim to their own bodies? Is it the state for failing to protect the right of pre-implanted fertilized eggs to implantation? By cloaking its propaganda in the rhetoric of civil and human rights, the egg crusaders avoid delineation of the real life consequences for women, once again reducing them to vessels with no agency, right to privacy or control over their own bodies.

The website does not specify what rights un-implanted eggs would be conferred with other than, presumably, the right to progress to the implantation stage, fetal development and then birth. There are no details about who or what could act on the behalf of the un-implanted egg as person if the host carrier (formerly known as mother) of the egg were to determine that she should receive medical treatment. There was no information on who would legally be empowered to intervene or act on behalf of the un-implanted egg as person (the state perhaps?) to object to any stance that the mother might take. It stands to reason that if contraception were used to prevent the inalienable right of the egg as "person" to implant, then host carriers who did so would be criminalized and prosecuted for murder. As a preventive measure, potentially offending host carriers could perhaps be fitted with special ankle bracelets or encoded with state monitored electronic microchips to preclude violations.

The Catholic and fundamentalist Christian activists at the forefront of the egg crusade are curiously silent on these small details. In true schizoid fashion they push for special faith-based government entitlements and yet scream about government interference, rallying big government to run roughshod over women's fundamental right to privacy through a new regime of policing. And indeed, their own "family planning" policies have proven an abysmal failure, as evidenced by the exploding teen birth rates in Bible Belt states like Alabama and Mississippi in comparison to lower rates in the relatively godless Northeast and Northwest (abstinence-only sex education programs and fundamentalist Christian propaganda against fornication outside marriage would seem to be a source of cognitive dissonance for Southern teens).

The decidedly anti-human rights egg crusade would take this national obscenity one step further by deepening the region's poverty and straining its already overburdened, single parent-averse social welfare net. The fervor of this "new" brand of anti-abortion activism only underscores the need for a vigorous secular defense against the continued incursions of the Religious Right. It's either that or get ready for the ankle bracelets.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and a commentator for Some of Us Are Brave KPFK 90.7 FM. This is an excerpt from her book Scarlet Letters on race/gender politics, atheism and secular belief in America.

November 19, 2009, 6:56 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink79 comments

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